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Finding Aid for the Spade Cooley papers, 1940-1970
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Collection Details
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  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography/History
  • Scope and Content
  • Organization and Arrangement
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Spade Cooley papers
    Date (inclusive): 1940-1970
    Collection number: 2128
    Creator: Cooley, Spade, 1910-1969.
    Extent: 25 document boxes (10 linear ft.)
    Abstract: This collection includes photographs, business documents, media, and memorabilia relating to the entertainment career of the “King of Western Swing,” Donnell “Spade” Cooley, as well as correspondence and other personal materials, and periodical coverage of his 1961 murder trial. After being “discovered” by Roy Rogers in 1934, Cooley went on to appear in over forty Westerns, front a successful Western swing big band, and enjoy a brief period of popularity as a local television personality in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s. His song “Shame on You” enjoyed the No. 1 spot on the country billboard for several months in 1945. After a series of real estate ventures—including the ill-fated “Water Wonderland” project which sapped Cooley’s financial resources—Cooley was convicted of the murder of his second wife, Ella May Cooley. He spent eight years at the California State Prison Medical Facility in Vacaville before suffering a fatal heart attack during a three-day furlough in 1969.
    Language: Finding aid is written in English.
    Language of the Material: Materials are in English.
    Repository: University of California, Los Angeles. Library Special Collections.
    Los Angeles, California 90095-1575
    Physical location: Stored off-site at SRLF. Advance notice is required for access to the collection. Please contact UCLA Library Special Collections for paging information.

    Administrative Information

    Restrictions on Access

    Open for research. STORED OFF-SITE AT SRLF. Advance notice is required for access to the collection. Please contact UCLA Library Special Collections for paging information.

    Restrictions on Use and Reproduction

    Property rights to the physical object belong to the UC Regents. Literary rights, including copyright, are retained by the creators and their heirs. It is the responsibility of the researcher to determine who holds the copyright and pursue the copyright owner or his or her heir for permission to publish where The UC Regents do not hold the copyright.

    Processing Note

    Processed by Morgan Woolsey in 2013 in the Center for Primary Research and Training (CFPRT), with assistance from Jillian Cuellar.
    The processing of this collection was generously supported by Arcadia. 

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Spade Cooley papers (Collection 2128). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

    UCLA Catalog Record ID

    UCLA Catalog Record ID: 7128070 


    Donnell “Spade” Cooley was an American actor, television personality, and Western swing big band leader and musician. Born in Oklahoma, 1910, Cooley was relocated to Salem, Oregon by his parents, John and Emma Cooley, in 1914. There he attended the Chemawa Indian School, picking up both the fiddle and cello under the tutelage of music teacher Hans von Sietz. At Chemawa he also picked up the nickname “Spade” (supposedly for his propensity to win poker games with flushes of spades). In 1930, the family relocated again, this time to Modesto, California, where Cooley worked as a farmhand and continued to fiddle. This was also the year Cooley married his first wife, Anne. After a few failed attempts to establish himself as a musician in Los Angeles, he took a variety of small jobs in Western bands (Chuck Woods’ Southern Stars and the Colorado Hillbillies), and eventually made his way back to southern California.
    In 1934, Cooley was hired as a stand-in for Roy Rogers, and gradually built up his career as a fiddler. The Venice Pier Ballroom booked a series of Western bands, and after playing a number of engagements there, Cooley formed his own band and began recording. During this time, he appeared in numerous Westerns (including an uncredited role in Destry Rides Again, George Marshall, 1939), and following the success of “Shame on You” in 1945 he was able to play larger engagements at the Santa Monica Ballroom, presaging his brief but wildly successful television career. In 1945, Cooley also divorced his first wife, and married Ella May Evans, a vocalist in his band. In 1947, the ban on union musicians’ performing on television was lifted, and shortly thereafter Cooley’s first show, “Hoffman Hayride,” went on the air. Its wild popularity—fueled by the then-current craze for “hillbilly music,” Cooley’s kinetic stage presence, a variety of novelty acts, and outrageous stunts—led to its eventual repackaging as “The Spade Cooley Show” in 1948.
    When the show went off the air in the mid-50s, Cooley had amassed enough wealth to embark upon a second career in real estate and development, setting his sights on the construction of a recreation center in Antelope Valley: Water Wonderland. This project resulted in failure, and drained Cooley of his funds. The Cooley family also began to disintegrate—Ella May moved out, the children went to live with friends of the family, and Cooley became increasingly jealous—and in April, 1961, Ella May was found dead in the family’s Willow Springs home. In August, 1961, following a highly sensationalized trial, Cooley was convicted of the first-degree murder, “by torture,” of Ella May, and was sentenced to life in prison. Despite the brutal nature of his crimes, he was slated for parole starting February, 1970. In November, 1969, he was granted a furlough to give a concert in Oakland, after which he suffered a fatal heart attack.

    Scope and Content

    The collection includes photographs, business agreements and contracts, audio recordings in various formats, personal and business correspondence, joke, lyric, and song sheets, personnel and production documents, publicity and promotional materials, and a variety of scripts and script fragments from film, radio, and television projects. It also includes documentation of Cooley’s “Water Wonderland” venture, a collection of awards and other objects, extensive periodical documentation of Cooley’s murder trial, and a large quantity of sheet music from several musicians in Cooley’s band (bass, drums, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, and a small assortment other parts). Of particular interest may be Cooley’s handwritten musical documents (arrangements, manuscripts, orchestrations) and the ten complete scripts from the Spade Cooley Show’s 1951 season.

    Organization and Arrangement

    Arranged in the following series:
    1. Photographs, 1910-1970
    2. Career Materials, 1940-1970
    3. Personal Materials, 1910-1970
    4. Newspaper Clippings, 1948-1962
    5. Sheet Music, 1910-1970

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.


    Cooley, Spade, 1910-1969 --Archives.
    Country musicians --United States --Archival resources.
    Television personalities --United States --Archival resources.

    Genres and Forms of Material

    sheet music.