Spade Cooley, an Indian cowboy, came from the poorest of the poor in Oklahoma. In 1931 he arrived in California with nothing but his fiddle & began to build a reputation as a cowboy crooner of the new western swing, a musical sound he he helped to formulate.
Legend has it that he got his name Spade during a poker game in Modesto, in which he drew three straight flushes in a row, all of them spades.
He entered the films as Roy Rogers' stunt double, as both had the rawboned look & squinting Indian handsomeness. This paid seventeen dollars a week to hang out at Republic's western village, & left his nights free to perform with sundry western swing bands, including with the Sons of the Pioneers.
In the 1940s he was often at the top of the country charts. A sweet man kind to everyone when sober, he had an unfortunate drinking problem & could be violent when drunk. His bassist Deuce Spriggens left to get away from the drama, & to start his own western swing band, & took vocalist Carolina Cotton with him, as his wife. When Spade's next singer was ready to quit the band, he threatened to toss her off the Santa Monica pier.
As Spade's anger management issues worsened, he came to blows with Tex Williams, firing him under conditions unreasonable enough that pretty much the entire band quite to start a new band without Spade. So both Tex Williams & the Caravan, & Deuce Spriggens & His Orchestra, grew out of Spade's band.
Always a faithless husband, he eventually ditched his wife to marry clarinetist Ella Mae Evans, a tiny beauty who weighed barely a hundred pounds. She was briefly the band's new singer despite that she couldn't sing.
The over-controlling Spade forced her to retire when she became pregnant, as he believed in the principle of barefoot, pregnant, & in the kitchen.
He became an increasingly horrible husband, shunting Ella & their children to a home in the Mohave desert while he stayed in Los Angels porking starlets & wannabe singers.
As a radio personality, recording artist, film star, owner of a popular western swing nightclub, & star of early television, it really seemed he was still drawing all-spade flushes & couldn't destroy his own good luck no matter how hard he tried. He became an enormous west coast star, though never quite the national phenomenon Roy Rogers became, & seems always to have felt the weight of having started out as Roy's stunt double always in Roy's shadow.
As the 1950s progressed, the writing was on the wall. Music was changing. As his ability to make producers wealthy diminished, his evil temper & his binges were no longer forgiveable. He was fired from his own television show, & never made another record after 1959.
His career was over. But he had amassed a fortune. He intended to start up Water Wonderland in the Mohave. It looked like he was on his way to being a tycoon in the entertainment industry apt to weather the rise of rock 'n' roll just fine.
It all came crashing to a close in 1961. His wife was much young than him & he had a jealous nature. He had never been the least bit faithful to her, but had done everything in his considerable power to isolate her from all human contact.
She may have developed a roving temperament just from the loneliness, but was more likely the victim of baseless jealousy. High as a kite on pills & whiskey, he came home to the ranch delusionally convinced Ella Mae was having a secret affair with Roy Rogers, that she & Roy had been sneaking off to orgies together.
Ella Mae had claimed to have had an affair with Roy ten years before, which was probably just a fantasy. But whether or not that was so, she had ever since devoted herself to the desert ranch & to the children. Terrified of Spade's imaginings & rage, Ella Mae took the children & fled in terror, staying with a girlfriend.
Eventually, he beat Ella Mae to death. He told his daughter, "You're going to watch me kill her, Melody. If you don't, I'll kill you, too." And he proceeded to beat Ella Mae until she was bruised from head to foot with particular injury to her vagina, pounded her head on the floor, & though she was by then likely already dead, he stomped on her stomach & burned her with a cigarette.
Governor Ronald Reagon gave the sadistic killer a pardon in 1970 & unbelievably it looked like he was not going to have any trouble whatsoever booking performances in large venues.
Fortunately the blessed Furies didn't think eight years was enough punishment for torturing a woman to death. Almost as a cruel joke, his last words in life, with the pardon in front of him, were these: "I feel like today is the first day of the rest of my life." He then kealed over with a heart attack, dead at 59.
The one-reeler Spade Cooley, King of Western Swing (1945) opens with a stocato narrator (Knox Manning) speaking of "the thrill packed days of the roaring west" to a series of scenes of shootout in a town's street, barroom brawl, stagecoach robbery, "warring redskins & ravaging whites," & a brutal hanging.
The narrator then promises that it's not so bad nowadays. The western heros are still there, & they're still killing, but "they're killing them with hot music."
A cowboy dismounts under the sign for "Stockman's General Store, Spade Cooley, Proprietor."
Fiddlers & a double-bass player begin gathering as if by happenstance on the porch of the general store & the fiddlin' has begun, Spade Cooley at the center, looking an awful lot like Roy Rogers with the squinty eyes & thin flashing smile.
The story that unfolds is minimalist, an excuse for a couple of tunes. Basically it pretends to be a biopic of how Spade Cooley rose from cowboy wildcat to musical hep-cat.
Back in the wild west of his beginnings, two of his friends ran for sheriff, Smokey Okey Rogers & Deuce Ark Spriggens. Spade fiddles between the opponents, supporting both, as they sing from their politicians' podium:
"Who killed the goose that laid the golden egg/ Who killed it yes who killed it/ Who killed the goose that laid the golden egg/ Who killed it yes who killed it/ Went out this morning to get the gold nugget/ There laid the goose she done kicked the bucket/ Who killed the goose that laid the golden egg."
It continues with comic verses, a nice danceable kid's song sung with whimsy & conviction, but nevertheless silly.
The setting then shifts with scarcely any rhyme or reason to a rodeo, which the narrator tells us was the next big event at which Spade gained notice.
Spade's "group of western swingsters" were hired to infuse the bronco busters with spirit. Cutting back & forth between musical performance & stock footage of rodeo events, Spade conducts back & forth along a bandstand's edge.
There's some unfortunate images of "woo woo woo" Indians tossed in for one of the jump-cuts, as the swing instrumental momentarily plays an Indian drumbeat.
The scene shifts again, this time to a campfire, by which Tex Wiliams will sing "Trouble With Me," while gorgeous babes sit about in cowgirl hats looking lucious:
"The trouble with me, is I'm troubled over you/ You're still my honey bee, though I can't trust you/ Everyone sees, how you're pushing me around/ I'm just trying hard to please, the meanest gal in town." Tex has a lovely low voice & delivers the song as good as it can be.
Cut to squaredance at which Spade's band is playing "Turkey in the Straw" the third & lamest instrumental we've heard, except that it suddenly gets pretty thrilling when Carolina Cotton begins yodeling her yodelly heart out. She's a bundle of personality & steals the whole show.
The last scene is on the radio for a "nationwide" performance. He fiddles a ho-down number that gets a few boogie licks in here & there from slide guitar, piano, accordion, & begins to sound a bit like "Tiger Rag." It's okay but hardly a big pay-off.
In sum the ten-minute musical western really isn't that bad, Spade is handsome as handsome gets, but he never speaks, never sings, & fiddles no better than the next ten fiddlers.
His singers & yodlers are the stars. He regarded himself more the Benny Goodman of western swing & really believed being out in front of the orchestra was what it took to be the star. This film suggests that wasn't true.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl