Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Spade Cooley

The End Arrives

Spade Cooley got lucky a second time after his conviction. He could have been assigned to San Quentin. But his physical and emotional state led to a cell at a much less forbidding lockup, the California state prison at Vacaville.

He was a model inmate there, performing with a jailbird band and building fiddles in the prison hobby shop. He found religion and told fellow prisoners that he wanted to become a Billy Graham-style preacher.

By 1965, he had finally begun to show contrition for his crime.

"I was as wrong as any person can possibly be," he said in a prison news interview. "There can be no excuse for beating anyone."

When Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1966, mutual friends from the B-movie business began lobbying for a pardon or parole for Cooley. Reagan waved the magic wand, and in August 1969 the state parole board unanimously recommended parole for Cooley, effective Feb. 22, 1970 — his 60th birthday.

Four months before his release, Cooley was granted a three-day furlough to perform in Oakland at a benefit concert for the Alameda County Sheriff's Department. He walked onstage to applause from an audience of 3,000 on Nov. 23, 1969. He played three songs, including "San Antonio Rose," which he dedicated to Bob Wills, who had suffered a debilitating stroke.

Cooley then strode into the wings, where he chatted with musician friends and reporters. He said he was looking forward to returning to work but was concerned about whether his fans would welcome him back.

Cooley's final concert
Cooley's final concert

"Sure, they will," somebody said.

Spade smiled.

"I think it's gonna work out for me," he said. "I have the feeling that today is the first day of the rest of my life."

The smile suddenly left his face. He dropped his fiddle, grimaced, clutched his chest and fell dead at 59 years of age.

Cooley was buried at Chapel of the Chimes Memorial Park, in Alameda County.

Cooley's children have gone on to lead quiet lives, out of the public eye, and the story of Spade Cooley's rise and fall has been largely forgotten, notwithstanding his Hollywood Walk of Fame star and the dozen or so of his recordings now in print.

That could change soon.

Film star Dennis Quaid wrapped up shooting in early 2005 on a biopic about Spade Cooley.

Tentatively titled Shame on You after Cooley's biggest hit song, the film is scheduled for release in 2006. Quaid stars and directs.

A spokesman explained that Quaid, who performs with his own band, has "had a life-long fascination with fallen musicians."

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