Graded on a Curve:
Spade Cooley &
the Western Swing
Dance Gang,
Shame on You

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.

I’m no fan of Cooley’s popularized version of Western Swing—it’s a slick concoction, with the big band swing definitely predominating over the Western twang, and the accordion and strings get on my nerves—but Shame on You has its moments, such as the wild guitar solos and crazy drumming on the instrumentals “Steel Guitar Rag” and “Oklahoma Stomp,” both of which are up-tempo numbers that probably had males swinging their female partners high into the air while doing the Lindy Flip, allowing gawking soldiers and sailors on leave (WWII was still raging) to catch a glimpse of panties. And “Down Home Rag” goes heavy on the fiddle, giving it that down yonder in the holler feel, and isn’t so far away from The Band’s “Rag, Mama, Rag” when it comes right down to it.

“Swinging the Devil’s Dream” is one frenetic tune, and were Shane MacGowan to suddenly jump in on vocals he wouldn’t sound out of place. Unfortunately it slows and the accordionist takes a solo, and only resumes its breakneck pace at the very end. “Corrine, Corrina” features some excellent drumming and nifty guitar work, and also sounds like a song Shane MacGowan could have put words to. There’s nothing southern, at least so far as I can tell, about “South,” which at least has some nice pedal steel guitar and fast pacing going for it, which is more than can be said of “Honey Song,” which is accordion crazy and features some florid vocals, although to be fair there is a steel guitar solo toward the song’s finish.

I can’t listen to “Cowbell Polka” without imagining Christopher Walken crying, “More cowbell,” because I don’t hear a single goddamn cowbell in the whole damn song. There is nothing worse than waiting for a cowbell that never shows up, and why in God’s name your would call a song “Cowbell Polka” when it doesn’t feature a cowbell is beyond my comprehension. Then again, “Yodeling Polka” doesn’t have any yodeling in it either, and if you ask me somebody should have sued Spade for false advertising. As for “Topeka Polka,” well, nobody really wants Topeka to show up, so its failure to arrive doesn’t come as a disappointment. That said “Topeka Polka” has a relatively high fiddle and guitar to accordion ratio, making it the best polka in the lot.

Shame on You isn’t entirely made up of instrumentals. Cooley scored a real coup when he got Tex Williams—who was born in Illinois and made his name in California, so who knows where the “Tex” came from—to become singer for the Western Swing Dance Gang. Williams is best known for his 1947 hit “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” which my mom definitely knows, because she sings it every time I light up. Anyway, Williams sings such songs as “Shame on You,” the lugubrious “Forgive Me One More Time,” and the cool “The Trouble with Me” in a mellow, laid-back style, and my mom’s hopped-up version of “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!” can kick his version’s ass any day.

“Rochester Schottische” is interesting only for its title, which sounds like a kind of pooch, but is actually a round dance resembling a slow polka that originated in Bohemia, that poor, pushed around Central European sorta state that also brought us the highly competitive sport of vábení jelenů, which involves impersonating a horny deer. “I Found a New Baby” has a cool riff running through it, and lots of steel guitar, and promises big things that never arrive as the accordion and strings take over. Still, it’s a nice instrumental, and includes a neat drum solo to boot. “Stay Away From My Heart” is a slower number, and features Williams telling his former lover to keep her distance because she’s the “two-timing kind.” Which is the reason, or suspicion thereof, that Cooley murdered his wife, with Roy Rogers—yes, that Roy Rogers—being the suspected other guilty party.

I could go on, but the numbers I haven’t covered sound pretty much like the ones I have. Spade Cooley & the Western Swing Dance Gang play a specialized music for specialized tastes, and if you’re a fan of Western Swing, you’re probably already familiar with this LP. If not, give it a listen, and maybe you’ll be converted and led to the harder stuff (yes, Western Swing is a gateway drug) the same way my younger brother was converted to jazz—hardcore, ornery, out-for-lunch atonal jazz—by the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s completely innocuous “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” although he doesn’t like to be reminded of this fact.

As for Cooley, he only served 8 years of a life sentence before being okayed for parole in 1970. But he received a furlough to play a benefit for a police organization before his release, but suffered a fatal heart attack backstage after receiving a standing ovation. Whether justice was served is up to somebody besides me to decide, because I don’t even know what the word justice means. I do suspect, however, that wherever Spade Cooley resides now, he isn’t happy to be remembered for an unspeakably heinous crime, and not his music. Maybe that’s justice in his case, and maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. I only know his music would have been better with more twang and less accordion, and that killing people is wrong. That’s my two-pronged moral code, and I’m sticking with it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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