Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Spade Cooley

Straight Flush, in Spades

Donnell Cooley was born Feb. 22, 1910, in a tornado cellar on a dusty ranch not far from the Canadian River in western Oklahoma, a few years after the Indian Territory was granted statehood.

His parents were a mix of Anglo and Native American, and Cooley attended Indian school. His father, John, was an amateur fiddler who carried his instrument to local hoedowns.

Donnell was enthralled by the fiddle, and it turned out he had a knack. His father saw that he was properly trained.

The boy took classical lessons on both violin and cello from a teacher at his school. After years of practice and study, he became adept not only at playing, but also at reading music and writing arrangements — talents that would later serve him well.

The Oklahoma ranch failed as the Great Depression arrived, and Cooley is believed to have moved west with his family, settling for a few years in Oregon's Cascade Range, near Packsaddle Creek east of Salem.

In 1931, Donnell Cooley, then 21, arrived in Modesto, Calif. He scraped out a living as a laborer by day and fiddler by night. After hours, he played cards.

According to country music historian Richard Kienzle, Cooley got his nickname during a poker game one night in Modesto. Three times, Cooley drew a straight flush — each in spades.

By the time he was 25, Cooley had a wife and a son. Instinct and economic reality told him there was no financial future in Modesto for a part-Indian fiddler with family obligations.

He set off for Hollywood.

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