Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Spade Cooley

A Nickel and a Fiddle

Spade Cooley's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at Hollywood Boulevard and North Highland Avenue, may be among the most unrecognized of the 2,200 luminaries honored there.

Spade Cooley's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Spade Cooley's star on the Hollywood
Walk of Fame

The little man with the catchy moniker is an obscure figure today, 50 years after his heyday, except among the most ardent of the boots-and-bolo-tie set — and the best-informed celebrity crime peepers.

But in his day, Spade Cooley, a hillbilly fiddler and western swing band leader, was an entertainment phenomenon, with wildly popular TV and radio shows, scads of films appearances, top-selling records and a ballroom orchestra in such demand that it cloned itself several times.

Cooley, born dirt-poor in Oklahoma, made his way to California during the Depression, arriving with a nickel in his pocket and a fiddle under his arm, as he liked to say.

A Young Spade Cooley
A Young Spade Cooley

Driven to succeed, Cooley managed to acquire the mansion on a hill that cowboy crooners moon over.

He and a handful of other musicians from Texas and Oklahoma, including Bob Wills and Milton Brown, are credited with creating the lilting, jazzy, twangy sound of western swing. And Cooley claimed the title of 'King of Western Swing,' amassing a $15 million fortune by capitalizing on that music craze on the west coast during the 1940s.

He owned an estate on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles, a ranch in the Mojave Desert and a 56-foot yacht. His closets were lined with 100 custom cowboy suits, 50 hats and three dozen pairs of pointy-toed boots.

And as his music was nudged aside by new fads like rock 'n' roll, the resourceful Cooley shifted to land development, planning a Disneyland-style amusement park in the desert that he planned to call Water Wonderland.

Spade & daughter Melody, age three
Spade & daughter Melody, age three

He seemed poised for a lucrative new career in real estate.

And then he lost it.

Cooley was madly jealous of his beautiful, younger wife, a lithe strawberry blonde named Ella Mae.

He worked himself into a blue rage over suspicions about Ella Mae's sex life — including a real or imagined affair with cowboy movie star Roy Rogers and blind paranoia about her participation in a "free-love sex cult."

Cooley's life as a celebrity came crashing down in a bloody domestic rampage on April 3, 1961 — a crime so depraved that it shocked even the most blasé readers of Hollywood Confidential.

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