Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Spade Cooley

Western Swing King

Johnny Weis
Johnny Weis

After his Venice success, in 1943, Cooley set out to put together the best western swing band in America. He plucked many of the top players from the Los Angeles recording scene, including Johnny Weis, a jazz-style guitarist. He also added a few unexpected players — Paul (Spike) Featherstone, a classically trained harpist; Muddy Berry, a drummer who favored tom-tom flourishes, a la big band legend Gene Krupa, and even an accordionist.

Paul Featherstone
Paul Featherstone

The number of players could vary from gig to gig, but the band typically included more than a dozen musicians and a girl singer. He dressed them in handmade western wear from one L.A.'s top wardrobe designers, paying as much as $500 per outfit for the most elaborate cowboy getups.

For publicity's sake, Cooley gave his players southwestern nicknames — Joaquin Murphey, Smokey Rogers, Cactus Soldi, Pedro DePaul, Deuce Spriggens — even if they happened to be from Brooklyn, Cleveland or Milwaukee. He also helped rename Helen Hagstrom, his Arkansas-born singer. The blonde bombshell yodeler became famous as Carolina Cotton.

Smokey Rogers
Smokey Rogers

As Johnny Bond, a musician who worked with Cooley early in his career, told Kienzle, author of Southwest Shuffle:

"(Cooley) was an energetic character. He was always eager to work, eager to please. He had that drive about him that showed that he wanted to get ahead. He wanted to be more than a fiddle player... He had a thing that a lot of musicians didn't have, and it was called showmanship."

Cooley fashioned himself as Benny Goodman, the 'King of Swing,' in a kerchief. He took the title of 'King of Western Swing.'

Carolina Cotton
Carolina Cotton

And his band certainly did learn to swing, refining its jazzy style as the regularly featured house band at the Riverside Rancho ballroom. 

Featured players traded jazz-style call-and-response riffs, just like Goodman's big band. Cooley's orchestra was more polished than the raw sound of Bob Wills' band, and Cooley's arrangements often were more complex, with harmonizing among the fiddles or guitars.

On Dec. 4, 1944, Spade Cooley took his orchestra into a recording studio for the first time. The result was the hit single "Shame on You." Released on Columbia's OKeh label, it was No. 1 on the folk music charts for two months. It was the first of six hit recordings Cooley would cut over the next two years.

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