(Image courtesy of Les Adams)
Above is the title lobby card from THE KID FROM GOWER GULCH (1949), one of a trio of starring westerns in which Cooley played hero/lead - the others were BORDER OUTLAWS (1950) and THE SILVER BANDIT (1950). Pictured on the left is Bob Gilbert who also tried his hand (very briefly) as a cowboy film hero in RED ROCK OUTLAW (1950).
(Image courtesy of Minard Coons)
Donnell Clyde Cooley
1910 - 1969
Oklahoma born Donnell Clyde 'Spade' Cooley came into the limelight during the World War II years with a western swing band with Tex Williams doing vocals. Sidemen during these early years included Joaquin Murphey, Smokey Rogers, Cactus Soldi, Pedro DePaul and Deuce Spriggens. Yodeling wizard Carolina Cotton was also a member of the band.
Significant changes occurred in the mid 1940s. In the Spring of 1945, Spriggens exited to form his own musical group which appeared in several of the Columbia westerns with Ken Curtis and the Hoosier Hotshots (SONG OF THE PRAIRIE (1945), COWBOY BLUES (1946), SINGING ON THE TRAIL (1946)). In 1946, Tex Williams left (some report this was on his own accord while others note that he was fired by Spade). Tex took Smokey Rogers and several other musicians with him and formed the "Western Caravan". In the Summer of 1946, Spriggens dissolved his organization and joined up with Williams.
Cooley formed another group, signed with RCA records and around 1948, hit the TV airwaves on station KTLA in Los Angeles with his own show which became a ratings hit and lasted for nearly ten years. Cooley sidemen during this later period included Noel Boggs (steel guitar) and Jimmy Wyble (guitar).
Billing himself as the "King of Western Swing", Cooley had hits such as "Steel Guitar Rag", and "Oklahoma Stomp" (Joaquin Murphey on steel guitar). Spade's signature tune was "Shame On You", which was originally released in 1945 on Columbia's Okeh label with Tex Williams doing the vocal. Spade's hard-drivin' musical style and popularity rivaled that of Bob Wills.
Prior to forming his western swing orchestra circa 1942, Cooley was a sideman (on fiddle) with Walt Shrum and the Colorado Hillbillies and Cal Shrum's Rhythm Rangers. Spade also did some fiddlin' and bit parts in various B westerns. If you watch closely, you can spot him in: MARSHAL OF MESA CITY (RKO, 1939) with George O'Brien; THUNDERING HOOFS (RKO, 1941) and RIDING THE WIND (RKO, 1942) with Tim Holt; DAWN ON THE GREAT DIVIDE (Monogram, 1942) with Buck Jones; IN OLD CHEYENNE (Republic, 1941) and SOUTH OF SANTA FE (Republic, 1942) with Roy Rogers; and LOST CANYON (United Artists, 1943) with William 'Hopalong' Boyd. The Cooley band (with Tex Williams, Deuce Spriggens and Carolina Cotton) helped out Bing's brother Bob Crosby in SINGING SHERIFF (Universal, 1944). And the group (with Tex Williams) were in ROCKIN' IN THE ROCKIES (Columbia, 1945) which featured mayhem from the Three Stooges and Hoosier Hotshots.
Les Adams has Cooley identified in 50+ films, and of that number, 36 are westerns.
(Image courtesy of Glenn White & Kevin Coffey)
Cooley and his band in OUTLAWS OF THE ROCKIES (1945), one of the Charles Starrett Durango Kid entries. On the far right are Starrett helper Tex Harding and heroine Carole Mathews.
Back row (porch) from left to right: Frank Buckley (accordion), Spade Cooley (fiddle), Johnny Weis (guitar), Muddy Berry (drums) and Deuce Spriggens (bass).
Front row from left to right: Tex Williams (guitar), Gibby Gibson (fiddle), Spike Featherstone (zither? or autoharp?), Smokey Rogers (guitar). A closer view of the band members is shown below.
(Image courtesy of Glenn White & Kevin Coffey)
As to Cooley's brief career as a western movie hero --- no great shakes there! The three films in which he starred were really low budget (no budget). And in the post World War II period, the popularity of the B western was fading.
As the decade of the 1950s drew to a close, Spade's popularity had faded and he no longer had a TV show. He had developed a heart condition and had some minor heart attacks. He tried to develop an amusement/theme park but that California real estate venture went bust.
Things got even worse.
Donnell Clyde 'Spade' Cooley is remembered for the beating and murder of his (second) wife Ella Mae Evans Cooley in July, 1961 for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Ella Mae Evans had once been a vocalist in the band, and the story goes that Cooley believed she was having an affair with a well known B western movie star. His fourteen year old daughter witnessed the brutal murder. A model prisoner with hopes of an early 1970 parole, Spade was given permission to leave prison to perform at a benefit concert. After concluding that November 23, 1969 performance, he passed away from a heart attack.
You may want to go to the In Search Of ... page on the Old Corral and check the California Death Records database and the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). The SSDI has a record for: Donnell Cooley, born 17 Dec 1910, passed away Nov 1969, last residence of Vacaville, California 95688 (that location was the prison). The California Death Records database has the following info: Donnell C. Cooley, born 12/17/1910 in Oklahoma, and passed away on 11/23/1969.
Roger M. Grace authored "Spade Cooley ... From KTLA, to KTTV, to the Prison at Vacaville": http://www.metnews.com/articles/reminiscing022703.htm
Paul Vidal has info on Cooley's recordings, including a listing of tunes, sidemen and vocalists at: http://www.bigvjamboree.com/SwinginSpadeCooley.htm
David Krajicek has authored a lengthy article on Cooley at the trutv website: http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/celebrity/spade_cooley/index.html
There's an article on the murder of Cooley's wife Ella Mae at Larry Harnisch's Daily Mirror blog at the Los Angeles Times newspaper website: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2011/04/spade-cooley-held-in-wifes-death.html
There are many Cooley videos on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=%22spade+cooley%22&aq=f
Jim Tipton's Find A Grave website has a photo of the marker for Cooley who is interred at Chapel of the Chimes Memorial Park, Hayward, California. Note that the grave marker shows his full name as Donnell C. Cooley Sr.: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6948