“Spade” Cooley was a virtuoso fiddler and Roy Rogers’ movie stand-in, who had six consecutive Top 10 hits and was considered Hollywood’s King of Western Swing. He was also a mean, jealous, paranoid, violent, alcoholic man who brutally murdered his wife in front of their daughter.
by Burt Kearns & Jeff Abraham
Donnell Clyde Cooley got the nickname “Spade” in his younger days, after he drew three consecutive hands of spades, one a straight flush, during a hot poker streak. Born one-quarter Cherokee in 1910, a decent boxer and virtuoso fiddler since he was a boy, Spade Cooley made his way from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to sunny California with his wife and son during the Great Depression.
Spade showed up at the gates of Republic Pictures in Studio City in 1934. He had his fiddle in his hand and six cents in his pocket. Cowboy movie star Roy Rogers gave him a job. Spade played with Roy’s Sons of the Pioneers western singing group and worked for three years as Roy’s movie stand-in. More roles in western movies followed.
In 1942, he joined Jimmy Wakely’s western swing band, which was attracting thousands of dancers every Saturday night to the Venice Pier Ballroom. Spade gained his own following with his fancy fiddling and footwork. When Wakely got a Hollywood movie contract in 1944, Cooley took over the band, turned it into the largest big band in the country, and released six consecutive Top 10 records (including the #1 hit, “Shame on You”). That led to his own music and variety television series. The show went national and was a mainstay well into the 1950s.
Spade Cooley was, in short, Hollywood’s King of Western Swing.
He was also one mean, jealous, paranoid, violent, alcoholic sonofabitch!
Spade Cooley was still married to his Okie high school sweetheart in 1942 when he hired, and then took up with, a singer named Ella Mae Evans. Ella Mae was about fifteen years younger. She sang okay. She was a blonde beauty. Spade took her as his second wife in 1945. Their daughter Melody was born the following year.
Shortly before the baby’s arrival, Ella Mae caught her husband with another woman. When she tried to pack her bags and leave, he threatened to kill her. When she ran away to Texas, he brought her back.
The beatings and insane jealousy continued throughout their marriage, after the birth of Donnell Jr. in 1948, and into the late 1950s as public musical tastes changed and Spade Cooley’s career cooled. The abuse got worse after Spade moved the family from their mansion on Ventura Boulevard into a palatial home on their isolated Water Wonderland Ranch, way out in the Mojave Desert in eastern Kern County.
In February 1960, Spade Cooley was honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. By this time, his television series had been canceled, he’d fired his orchestra, and he was basically semi-retired. He devoted much of his time to planning Water Wonderland, which he envisioned as a 1,000-acre amusement park with swimming pools, boat racing and a broadcast studio for a new television show.
He also had time to drink, stew, and blame his fading popularity and other troubles on his pretty young wife.
The following year, Ella Mae was in the hospital suffering from what was diagnosed as “extreme strain.” Ella Mae told her doctor more than once that she was in fear of her husband. Certain she was catting around, Spade had accused her of affairs with men, women and his former boss, Roy Rogers. From the hospital, she retained a female attorney to start divorce proceedings. She claimed her husband had beaten her, the abuse was increasing and she feared he would kill her.
Spade responded by harassing and beating her more.
On Friday, March 17, he filed for divorce in Bakersfield, citing incompatibility and seeking custody of the kids.
“Ella Mae has moved out and I’m heartsick,” he told reporters at his ranch. “But there isn’t a chance of a reconciliation.”
In reality, Ella Mae remained on the ranch, virtually a prisoner. Spade had pulled the innards out of the phone receivers so she couldn’t call out. On March 23, he administered a savage beating to Ella Mae and forced her to sign four deeds, transferring all their property from joint ownership to him alone. The next day, he called Anita Aros, a violinist in his band. Spade told Anita he was getting divorced and asked her to marry him as soon as the divorce was final. Anita agreed. She said she thought he was joking.
In the days to follow, Spade Cooley forced Ella Mae to call friends and confess to having an affair. He made her say the same to their daughter, Melody, now 14. He even forced her to sign a confession.
Sometime after 6 p.m. on April 3, 1961, Spade Cooley unleashed a savage attack on his estranged wife in their home. He knocked her to the floor in the living room and beat her in the bedroom, leaving blood spattered on the floor, walls and his trousers. He choked her, stomped her, yanked the hair out of her head and, with the handle of a broom, violated her vaginally and anally.
In the middle of the frenzy, 14-year-old Melody walked into the house and interrupted her dad.
“Come here, I want you see your mother,” he said, leading the girl through the dining room, past the broken furniture, broken glass and whiskey bottle, to the bloody walls of the master bedroom. Her mother was not there. Spade walked into the bathroom.
“Get up, Ella Mae,” she heard him demand. “Melody is here.”
He dragged Ella Mae’s nude, bruised and blood-covered body from the shower into the bedroom, and slammed her head on the floor. Twice.
“Melody, I’ll give you three minutes to get her off the floor or I’ll kill her if you don’t get her up.”
Spade Cooley went into the living room and began a countdown. “One minute left!”
“Half a minute left!”
The body remained limp.
“Time’s up, Melody.” Spade Cooley entered the room with a rifle in his hand. “All right, Melody, you are going to watch me kill her.” With that, he stomped Ella Mae in the abdomen. He called her a “slut.”
Then he knelt down by her body. “We’ll just see if you’re dead,” he said.
He burned the nipples of each breast with a cigarette.
After he was arrested, Spade Cooley had a pretty simple defense. He claimed that Ella Mae had slipped in the shower. When that didn’t wash, he said he’d never meant to hurt her, but blacked out after she told him she was having sex with two other men.
Psychiatrists found 54-old Spade Cooley legally sane to stand trial for the murder of 36-year-old Ella Mae Cooley. Even so, he pleaded innocent by reason of insanity.
While awaiting trial, he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized for several days.
The jury trial began in Bakersfield Superior Court on July 10, 1961, and became what at the time was the longest and most spectacular trial in Kern County history. People lined up for the sixty-odd available seats in the courtroom. The testimony was lurid. One witness testified that Ella Mae told her she indeed had an affair with Spade’s archrival, Roy Rogers. (Roy’s wife Dale Evans was forced to say that the claim was “ridiculous”). Anita Aros talked about Spade Cooley’s marriage proposal and, in what was the most wrenching moment in the trial, Melody told the story of the day her mother died.
When Spade’s daughter took the stand on Thursday, July 27, the former Hollywood King of Western Swing wept openly. Melody testified that she arrived at the ranch to see her father drag her mother from the shower, slam her head on the floor and burn her with cigarettes. By the end of her testimony, Melody was crying like a baby, as well. When she stepped from the witness stand and paused at the defense table, father and daughter stared at each other and both began bawling.
The court took a recess. Spade was in a holding cell, talking with defense investigator Leonard Winters, when he became emotional again.
“Wasn’t she beautiful? Wasn’t she beautiful?” he said.
A cigarette fell from his mouth. Winters realized what was happening: Spade was having another heart attack. The private eye gave the defendant a heart pill and called for the jail physician. Spade was taken to County General Hospital. After an electrocardiogram showed no heart damage, he was brought back to his cell.
Spade Cooley took the stand in his defense. He testified he struck his wife after she admitted engaging in unnatural acts with two men and told him the details of a “free love” sex cult she was part of. There were to be ten “senior members” and each was to recruit ten more for a total of one hundred people.
“Rockets were going off in my head,” he said from the stand. “It was on fire.”
Spade admitted giving Ella Mae a slap (“I don’t think I would hit her with my fist”), after which he claimed they sat on the bed, she said, “Donnell, you think I don’t love you,” snatched a cigarette from his hand and burned her own breast.
“It wasn’t like Ella Mae at all,” Spade testified. “It was though she was an animal.”
On August 19, after six weeks and after 19 hours and 14 minutes of deliberation, the jury of ten men and two women announced a verdict. It was a Saturday afternoon, so most of the spectators who’d fought for seats in the courtroom each day of the trial weren’t around. There were more television, radio and newspaper reporters on hand than the public.
Spade Cooley was found guilty of first degree murder. He “sat almost impassively when he heard the verdict read by a clerk. At first he seemed to stare blankly at the jury,” George C. Flowers from the Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram reported. “Then his face seemed to dissolve into the handkerchief in his hand and it was obvious that he was crying, albeit quietly.”
Sentencing took place on Tuesday. Spade’s attorney withdrew the insanity defense, and spared the state two more trials on whether Spade was sane at the time of the killing and what the sentence could be. The maximum penalty could have been death in San Quentin’s gas chamber.
Judge William L. Bradshaw sentenced Spade Cooley to life in prison.“We have a somewhat sketchy story of him,” the judge said while passing sentence. “He has been a source of pleasure for a segment of people, so we can’t say he has been antisocial. There was nothing in his life to indicate he would not be amenable to rehabilitation.”
Spade Cooley was transferred from the Kern County jail to the state’s penal processing system in Chino. Doctors there examined him and determined he was subject to extreme mood changes and periods of depression, enough to have him classified as mentally disturbed after all, and unfit for a suitably country music-style term in a prison like San Quentin or Folsom.
He was sent to the California Medical Facility, a state mental hospital in Vacaville. Instead of a cell, he had a private room. His treatment included carving violins in the Vacaville Hospital machine shop and teaching in the music department.
He remained in the Vacaville hospital, never having to see the inside of a prison. Due to his past heart troubles, he lived under a restricted health regimen and was spared normal prisoner duties. He played music, and wrote the song “Cold Gray Bars”, which became a hit for Ned Miller.
“He said he had a thing about killing animals — he couldn’t bear it, not even a mouse,” said Dr. Eugene Prout, Vacaville’s chief medical officer. “He wouldn’t eat meat at all. He didn’t have many visitors but he had lots of friends among the inmates. He was a very humble man.”
On August 5, 1968, the California State Adult Authority voted unanimously to parole Spade Cooley from the California Medical Facility on February 22, 1970. By then, he would have served nearly nine years.
In November 1969, Spade received a 72-hour furlough from the hospital to perform in a benefit concert for the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Alameda County at the Oakland Auditorium.
He took the stage for the Grand Ole Opry Spectacular on Sunday afternoon, November 29th. He was nervous as he walked onstage for his first performance in nine years. He thanked the deputies for “the chance to be free for awhile,” and played his fiddle.
The audience of 2,800 lawmen and officials cheered him throughout. It was like the glory days. When he was done, he took bow after bow. He walked offstage to a standing ovation.
At intermission, the applause still ringing, Cooley stepped backstage. He was out of breath. He told an attorney named David Lucchese he was suffering chest pains, and signed a few autographs. He told some friends that he felt “today is the first day of the rest of my life.”
Then he dropped his fiddle and dropped dead of a heart attack. Spade Cooley was 58, three months away from real freedom.
BURT KEARNS & JEFF ABRAHAM have written a book about performers who died on stage. It will be published in 2019.