Western swing musician, big band leader, actor, nationally known television personality, and cold-blooded killer—you’ll have to look really hard to find a resume more varied than that of Donnell Clyde “Spade” Cooley. And you’ll also have to look even harder to find an album with a more appropriate title than Shame on You, seeing as how Cooley brutally murdered his wife in 1961 by pounding her head on the floor and then putting out a lit cigarette on her body to make sure she was dead. As if that weren’t horrifying enough, he forced his teenage daughter to witness the murder, saying, “You’re going to watch me kill her.”
It has become almost impossible—and appropriately so—to write dispassionately about Spade Cooley, the so-called King of Western Swing, given Spade Cooley the private citizen’s status as a convicted (and particularly bestial) killer. Cold-blooded murder will always be what Cooley’s best remembered for—thanks in part to noir writer James Ellroy, who has made Cooley a recurring character in his fiction—regardless of his musical accomplishments, which were considerable.
Cooley, who was part Cherokee, was born in 1910 in Grand, Oklahoma, a lovely part of the country that the Cooleys fled for California come the Dust Bowl in 1930. (Grand is now a ghost town.) Cooley’s skill on the fiddle and good luck saw him take over Jimmy Wakely’s big band after Wakely got a movie contract, and soon Cooley and band’s shows at the Venice Pier Ballroom were packed. By the mid-forties Cooley was a superstar of sorts, renowned for his songs (Shame on You came out in 1945 and led to six straight Top Ten singles) as well as for his numerous roles in films. And come the advent of television he conquered that medium too, with The Spade Cooley Show drawing in 75 percent of Los Angeles’ TV viewers each week, to say nothing of the viewers nationwide who tuned into his show, which was broadcast coast-to-coast by the Paramount Television Network.