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A swing king reemerges

Fiddler-bandleader Spade Cooley was hot stuff in the '40s and '50s. Then he killed his wife -- and his reputation.

July 09, 2005|Shana Ting Lipton | Special to The Times

For those looking down on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the name Spade Cooley probably doesn't mean very much. He was a real-life star once, known as "The King of Western Swing" back in the '40s and '50s, when he led a 30-piece band, was a fiddle virtuoso and hosted his own television variety show.

Now perhaps his greatest claim to fame is an ignominious one: He's believed to be the only convicted killer with a star on the Walk of Fame. On Feb. 8, 1960, the foundation for Cooley's star was laid. Just a year later, at age 51, he sat in a cell in Vacaville prison, serving a life sentence for the murder of his 37-year-old wife, Ella Mae.

Today, Cooley has yet to fully emerge from the shadows of musical obscurity. The western swing genre that he helped pioneer has remained a dusty, albeit inventive, hybrid between country western and the swing music of the big band era.

"He's a forgotten man," says writer John Gilmore. "Everyone said, 'Good riddance to that monster.' "

But Gilmore and a handful of other artists are trying to see to it that people not only remember but also hear the complex and multifaceted story of Cooley's rise to success, along with his abysmal fall from grace. In August, Gilmore will release "L.A. Despair" (Amok Books), a collection of dark stories, a la "Hollywood Babylon," that includes a section on the King of Western Swing.

Actor Dennis Quaid has purchased the rights to the three Cooley children's stories. He's written a film he plans to direct and star in, alongside actress Katie Holmes. "My story is really about the battle of light and darkness inside all of us," Quaid says, explaining that it is not his intent to pass judgment but rather portray Cooley as true to life as possible.

Local filmmaker Dave Payne has been fine-tuning his own script for a screen version of Cooley's life. "My story is about a guy who comes to Hollywood and gets treated like a star," he says. "The people around him tried to cover up the murder."

A reverence for Cooley's unsung musical talent -- along with fascination about his grim downward spiral -- seems to be at the root of the renewed interest in his troubled life. He was born Donnell C. Cooley, in Grand, Okla., in 1910. He learned to play cello and violin before the age of 10, after his family moved to Oregon. Years later -- as legend has it -- he was christened "Spade" during a lucky poker game in which he beat the odds with several spade flushes.

But legend is often muddied by time. In "L.A. Despair," Gilmore claims that Cooley "would tell tales that varied from being born in a storm cellar to swearing he was half Cherokee Indian and his granddaddy'd scalped a truckload of white men." Writer James Ellroy also managed to capture Cooley's vintage grandiosity in "L.A. Confidential" and "Dick Contino's Blues and Other Stories" -- both works that feature a "Spade" character in one form or another.

In 1930, the Cooley family moved to Modesto. Just a few years later, young Donnell would join the legions of would-be cowboys lining up for their big break in Hollywood. It was the '30s, in the middle of the western movie craze. Gilmore says that there was a drugstore around the corner from the Columbia Pictures studios where these cowboy movie hopefuls would hang out waiting for work, giving birth to the term "drugstore cowboy." Cooley managed to stand out above the other cowboys by standing in for western idol Roy Rogers, but eventually his acting career flopped.

His music was a whole other story.

Big band, the big time

By the 1940s, Cooley had assembled a big band with Tex Williams handling most of the vocals. He warmed up to future wife Ella Mae, who was in the band as well. They began playing the Venice Pier Ballroom and later the Riverside Rancho in Los Feliz and the Santa Monica Ballroom. The big sound and the high energy of the gigs attracted die-hard fans -- mostly factory laborers working swing shifts.

"People were top-notch jitterbugging, jumping around, cutting loose and going crazy," says Gilmore, who adds that Cooley "was close to a genius with the fiddle." At one such performance, Cooley faced off with musical rival Bob Wills and beat him out for the title of King of Western Swing. Cooley was in many ways a rock star of his time; he certainly dressed the part, decked out in Western suits emblazoned with his trademark spades.

"Anyone that wanted to be a groovy hillbilly came to Los Angeles," says Paul Greenstein, guitarist and vocalist of the Radio Ranch Straight Shooters, a band that, along with the Lucky Stars, and Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, has followed the western swing tradition associated with Cooley. The Radio Ranch Straight Shooters originally recorded one of Cooley's tunes, "Y'Ready," for Payne. It ended up on the soundtrack of David Lynch's 1999 film "The Straight Story."

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