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The Resurrection of Spade Cooley

Gary North
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Feb. 9, 2010

Dennis Quaid is the star of a forthcoming movie about Spade Cooley. Quaid is not only the star, he also wrote the script and directed the film -- his first. He has a lot riding on it.

Spade Cooley. Does this name ring a bell? If you are under age 65, or are not a fan of Western swing music, or did not grow up in southern California, probably not. Then why make a movie about him?

Cooley was one of the truly astounding Hollywood celebrities, who hardly anyone east of the Rockies and north of Oklahoma has ever heard of. His was one of the great rags-to-riches-to-rags story in American entertainment history. Yes, there are a lot of these stories, but few match his.


RAGS

Like so many young Oklahomans in the Great Depression, he arrived in California to seek his fortune. He arrived early: 1930. He came with his parents. He was 20 years old. As he later put it, he had a fiddle under one arm and a nickel in his pocket.

He got jobs as a fiddle player in western bands, which were popular in southern California. One of the groups was the Sons of the Pioneers, which became famous with Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1934) and Cool Water (1936). The group's founder was Roy Rogers, who had also arrived in 1930, but from Ohio. Cooley played with the group after Rogers left for the movies. Cooley and Rogers became close friends. Cooley sometimes worked as a stunt man for Rogers.

He worked with a small band that became popular in 1940, playing at Santa Monica's Venice Pier. The audience was heavily made up of blue collar workers and immigrants from Oklahoma. In 1943, he formed his own orchestra.

In a contest between Bob Wills' Texas swing band, Cooley's won. He proclaimed himself "King of Western Swing." That announcement in fact named the genre. It had not been called this before.


RICHES

The next year, Cooley's band had its first hit: Shame on You. (For a 1945 film short, with Cooley doing the fiddle playing, click here.) The band's market was limited to the country music segment of the music industry. The band followed with five more country music hits over the next two years.

In 1947, the band was drawing 8,000 people an evening at the Santa Monica Ballroom.

Then he made a momentous decision. He started playing on a local TV station, KTLA (later owned by Gene Autry). By the end of the year, he had 75% of the Los Angeles audience on Saturday nights. Of course, there were not many TV sets in Los Angeles in 1948. But he got a lock on the Saturday night slot. He became a phenomenon.

I can remember in 1951 watching the show. I was living temporarily with my aunt and uncle north of Los Angeles in Newhall. They watched "The Spade Cooley Show" every Saturday night. It always opened with Dick Lane -- the original wrestling TV commentator in Los Angeles -- announcing: "And now, here's your fiddlin' friend and mine . . . Spade Cooley!"

The show was mostly music, with some cornpone humor, such as a weekly back-and-forth routine between Spade and Lotta Chatter. My uncle informed me several weeks into the show that Lotta was really a member of the band in a dress. Because of Google, I learned only recently that his real name was Les Chatter, which is only slightly less strange.

Sinatra sang on the show before his 1951 comeback in From Here to Eternity. I can even remember when he had a young Sarah Vaughan sing. On a country music show! I thought at the time, "this doesn't work." I was nine years old. Even I could spot cultural dissonance.

Within ten years, 1944-1954, Cooley reportedly accumulated a fortune of $15 million. This was in a period in which the top income tax rate was 91%. My suspicion is that he did not have that much money, because in today's money, that would be the equivalent of $120 million. Country music royalties, B-westerns, and local TV programming were unlikely to have been sufficient to produce $15 million after taxes. But he was rich.


RAGS

Cooley had a AAA-problem: ambition, adultery, and alcohol.

Ambition served him well for 15 years. But it accompanied his downfall. Musical tastes changed in the mid-1950's. Oldsters wanted to watch KTLA's Lawrence Welk. Kids wanted rock and roll. Cooley's popularity declined. His show was canceled in 1957.

He wanted to make money. Buying tax-exempt municipal bonds and living comfortably, income tax-free, had no appeal to him. He never was able to score financially again.

Women were a major weakness. He housed his young wife in a distant Mojave Desert mansion, while he stayed in Los Angeles. He bedded a series of aspiring singers and actresses.

And he drank. He had been a heavy drinker for a decade. He got mean when he drank. He repeatedly fired band members, only to hire them back later. The most famous one was Tex Williams, who did not return.

He was extremely jealous of his wife. He accused her of having affairs. On one occasion, she told a friend that she had had an affair with Roy Rogers. The story got out, although the friend said she did not believe it. The story got the pre-tabloid Hollywood scandal magazines, which were popular at the time. It still floats around in the tabloids.

In 1961, his wife told him she was leaving him. He flew into a rage. He beat her into unconsciousness.

He called his 14-year old daughter into the room. He then kicked his wife's body some more. He threatened to kill the daughter and then himself if she told the police. The daughter escaped. She later testified to the incident at his trial.

He was convicted of murder. He had a heart attack while the judge delivered the sentence.


REDEMPTION

He spent eight years at Vacaville Prison, a less rigorous place than San Quentin. He became a model prisoner. He professed faith in Christianity and said he wanted to become a Billy Graham-style preacher. He also made fiddles for inmates.

Then providence stepped in. Former actor Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1966. Friends petitioned Reagan to grant Cooley a pardon. Reagan did not go that far, but the parole board unanimously recommended parole in 1969.

Four months before the parole was to begin, he was given a three-day furlough. The reason: to play a benefit show for the Alameda Sheriff's Department.

This, I assure you, is unheard of. Prisoners are not well-regarded by law-enforcement personnel. They are suspicious of jailhouse conversions. But Cooley got the offer, and he accepted it.

He was well-received. He played three songs. Then he went backstage. He chatted with friends. He told them he was confident that his life had changed for the better.

Then he collapsed. He was dead of a heart attack at the age of 59.

Spade Cooley died with his boots on. He had owned a lot of boots.


CONCLUSION

I can see why Quaid wanted to do this story. It goes beyond rags-to-riches-to-rags. It ends in redemption, but a redemption that was cut short.

It will be interesting to see how Quaid plays Cooley as a younger man. If he pulls this off, the role will be Oscar material . . . for the makeup director.

This is true entrepreneurship: financial and artistic. A movie about a long-forgotten southern California country music dance band leader who savagely kicked his unconcious wife to death in front of his teenage daughter is not the stuff of date night revenues. The producer must have another audience in mind. I cannot imagine which audience. But I'll be there.

The film will be called -- inevitably -- Shame on You.

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