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shame on you, spade cooley/tales from the sleazy underbelly of the golden age of western swing/country music in los angeles by

December 17th, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Spade Cooley would have been 97 today, had he not died some years ago of a heart attack, backstage during intermission of his famous (final) governor reagan approved, pre-prison parole concert.
A little, half-indian, classically-trained violinist from Oklahoma, Cooley was probably one of the most bizarre and megalomaniacal C&W stars ever, this during the era when the W in countrynwestern still meant something–he the self-proclaimed King of Western Swing (though the general consensus of history would later crown Bob Wills with that title).
Spade first entered the western bizniss as a Roy Rogers stand-in but gained fame (and notoriety) for his swing band – a hit of the then-hip Santa Monica Pier clubs. Far slicker than the hard, jazzy, honky tonk-influenced western swing of the esteemed Mr. Wills, Cooley’s true talents (along with his own top-notch fiddlin’) lay in his orchestration and arrangements, with a penchant for fairly eclectic takes on standards (or soon-to-be standards).
This somewhat bizarre clip (I wonder what it’s from, besides the obvious answer of TCM) I think somewhat illustrates that, showcasing a famous incarnation of his band(members rotated fairly often, given how quick Spade was to fire on a whim), with Tex Williams singing around the campfire and some really, really, really intense yodeling from a gal whose name I can’t recall (check the comments). The last number demonstrates his eclecticism expertly with an expanded band, replete with a cowboy harpist (not blues harp, hon, he got an orchestral harpist), two string basses, a jazz drummer with a fuller kit than Wills’ Texas Playboy for sure and like a buttload of other stuff too.
Although it’s hip to equate classic country with a bare-bones approach these days, this is clearly not always the case, and Spade’s band exemplifies that fact. Too Hollywood for some, but I dig it.
Anyway, as Cooley’s arrangements got increasingly baroque and his alcoholism worsened, the Western Swing trend just happened to die down and Spade was not gonna go quietly. Bizarre comeback attempts like a new all-female group and a Western theme park (this just after Disneyland was a big success) drained his money and it became difficult for him to maintain his rockstar lifestyle (he kept a mansion to himself and his groupies and housed his wife and daughter in a secluded rural ranch, forbidding them to leave the property).
Becoming increasingly and more bizarrely jealous of his wife and convinced that she was involved in a sex cult along with his two business partners in the failed theme park bid–he spot their limp-wrists miles away, he claimed–Spade became violent, especially when he caught word that his wife had confessed to a galpal a decades-old, brief affair with old chum Roy Rogers (though Rogers was apparently confused to hear this and many suspect she invented it out of guilt, weary of Spade’s accusations).
So he beats the shit out of her and stomps her to death with his cowboy boots in front of their fourteen year old daughter.
His questionable and confusing behavior (he was clearly out of his mind) during the trial, I think, insured against a death sentence, and he almost got out of his life sentence after a couple decades on good behavior, instead dying of a heart attack at the pre-parole announcement concert the state had awarded him the opportunity of performing. The whole sordid affair aside, he played a mean fiddle and although the scandal tainted his legacy, no western swing fan could deny his place in the history of that tradition.
Happy Birthday, Spade!

One response to “shame on you, spade cooley/tales from the sleazy underbelly of the golden age of western swing/country music in los angeles”

  1. KWUR PSA/News Director says:

    they really don’t make them as fucked up as they used to.
    he makes george jones and his riding mower seem tame.

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