Fiddle player Spade Cooley (1910-1969) had one of those careers that they routinely call "colorful"... One of the most prosperous western swing bandleaders of the 1940s, Cooley smoothed the bluesy hard spots out of the rugged hillbilly jazz that folks like Milton Brown and Bob Wills created, and his slicker, poppier version made him a much more salable, mainstream commodity. Having Tex Williams, one of western swing's greatest singers, in his band didn't hurt none, either. Things fell apart pretty quickly for Cooley, though -- he and Williams had a big blowout, Williams took most of the band's crackerjack musicians with him, and Cooley shifted into an even more pop-oriented, orchestral sound. One night in 1961, Cooley totally lost it and brutally murdered his wife -- leading to a prison sentence that proved to be permanent. Legend has it that he died of a heart attack on stage, playing a benefit concert for a policeman's association, just months before his scheduled parole. Even leaving the sordid stuff aside, history hasn't been kind to Cooley, since for decades only his cheesiest pop stuff was available from the record companies -- leading to his reputation as country's Lawrence Welk. Nonetheless, there's a some great music there to be found, you just have to know where to look...

Discography - Best-Ofs

Spade Cooley "Shame On You" (Bloodshot/Soundies, 1999)
The great news here is that this disc rocks. These WWII-era recordings show Cooley in peak form, with Williams on vocals and his best band intact. There's a bluesiness and looseness that you never would have suspected from listening the postwar stuff -- this disc completely vindicates Cooley and is well worth checking out.

Spade Cooley "...And His Western Dance Gang: Radio Broadcasts: 1945" (Country Routes, 1998)
Peppy old radio transcriptions from Fall, 1945. Cooley was one of the key figures in West Coast western swing; here is his band in top form, with vocalists that include Tex Willams, Johnny Bond, Smokey Williams and the Andrews Sisters-y "Sunshine Trio." Pedal steel star Joaquin Murphey anchors the band along with three fiddles and the ever-present chugga-chugga-chugin' accordion that was the signature sound of California country. Good stuff which forcefully contradicts Cooley's reputation as a cheeseball Lawrence Welk of country. Other than a couple of awkward fade-ins, the sound quality on this one is pretty good.

Spade Cooley "Spadella: The Essential Spade Cooley" (Sony Legacy, 1994)
Here's the official, major-label entry into Cooley-ania, a swell set of Cooley's best studio recordings, including several of later vintage. But for a sound of his popular recordings, from the swinging to schmaltzy, this is a pretty tasty selection. Recommended!

Spade Cooley & Tex Williams "Western Swing Jamboree" (Binge Disc/Bronco Buster)

Spade Cooley "Fidoodlin' " (Roulette, 1959)
A sad coda to the long career of this fabled western swing bandleader... After his orchestra splintered in the mid-1950s, Cooley concentrated on his TV career, and wound up hosting a wildly popular prime-time show in LA. That gig had started to peter out by the time he got into the studio to cut this set, an album that turned out to be his last, as Cooley wound up in prison a couple of years later, never to record again. The ensemble was packed with talent, including steelman Joaquin Murphey and sleek guitar picker Roy Lanham (who does a mean Chet Atkins imitation...) And, of course, there was Cooley himself, who dashes off some fine fiddle licks, along with two accompanists who double the fiddles and create a string section sound on most tracks. It's the feel of the album that makes it hopeless, though: Cooley's musical instincts had become irreparably popped out and muzak-y, and though the musicianship is high on this album, the music itself was pretty cheesy. It's worth checking out if you are a Cooley fan or a western swing buff, but don't expect too much from it.

Spade Cooley & Tex Williams "A Western Swing Dance Date with Spade & Tex" (Jasmine, 2000)

Spade Cooley "1941-1947: FRom Rare Transcriptions Discs" (Country Routes, 2000)


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