Dennis Quaid is the star of a forthcoming movie about Spade Cooley. Quaid is not only the star, he also wrote the script and directed the film — his first. He has a lot riding on it.
Spade Cooley. Does this name ring a bell? If you are under age 65, or are not a fan of Western swing music, or did not grow up in southern California, probably not. Then why make a movie about him?
Cooley was one of the truly astounding Hollywood celebrities, who hardly anyone east of the Rockies and north of Oklahoma has ever heard of. His was one of the great rags-to-riches-to-rags stories in American entertainment history. Yes, there are a lot of these stories, but few match his.
Like so many young Oklahomans in the Great Depression, he arrived in California to seek his fortune. He arrived early: 1930. He came with his parents. He was 20 years old. As he later put it, he had a fiddle under one arm and a nickel in his pocket.
He got jobs as a fiddle player in western bands, which were popular in southern California. One of the groups was the Sons of the Pioneers, which became famous with Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1934) and Cool Water (1936). The group’s founder was Roy Rogers, who had also arrived in 1930, but from Ohio. Cooley played with the group after Rogers left for the movies. Cooley and Rogers became close friends. Cooley sometimes worked as a stunt man for Rogers.
He worked with a small band that became popular in 1940, playing at Santa Monica’s Venice Pier. The audience was heavily made up of blue collar workers and immigrants from Oklahoma. In 1943, he formed his own orchestra.
In a contest between Bob Wills’ Texas swing band, Cooley’s won. He proclaimed himself "King of Western Swing." That announcement in fact named the genre. It had not been called this before.
The next year, Cooley’s band had its first hit: Shame on You. (For a 1945 film short, with Cooley doing the fiddle playing, click here.) The band’s market was limited to the country music segment of the music industry. The band followed with five more country music hits over the next two years.
In 1947, the band was drawing 8,000 people an evening at the Santa Monica Ballroom.
Then he made a momentous decision. He started playing on a local TV station, KTLA (later owned by Gene Autry). By the end of the year, he had 75% of the Los Angeles audience on Saturday nights. Of course, there were not many TV sets in Los Angeles in 1948. But he got a lock on the Saturday night slot. He became a phenomenon.
I can remember in 1951 watching the show. I was living temporarily with my aunt and uncle north of Los Angeles in Newhall. They watched "The Spade Cooley Show" every Saturday night. It always opened with Dick Lane — the original wrestling TV commentator in Los Angeles — announcing: "And now, here’s your fiddlin’ friend and mine . . . Spade Cooley!"
The show was mostly music, with some cornpone humor, such as a weekly back-and-forth routine between Spade and Lotta Chatter. My uncle informed me several weeks into the show that Lotta was really a member of the band in a dress. Because of Google, I learned only recently that his real name was Les Chatter, which is only slightly less strange.
Sinatra sang on the show before his 1951 comeback in From Here to Eternity. I can even remember when he had a young Sarah Vaughan sing. On a country music show! I thought at the time, "this doesn’t work." I was nine years old. Even I could spot cultural dissonance.
Within ten years, 1944—1954, Cooley reportedly accumulated a fortune of $15 million. This was in a period in which the top income tax rate was 91%. My suspicion is that he did not have that much money, because in today’s money, that would be the equivalent of $120 million. Country music royalties, B-westerns, and local TV programming were unlikely to have been sufficient to produce $15 million after taxes. But he was rich.
Cooley had a AAA-problem: ambition, adultery, and alcohol.