60 Years Ago: Spade Cooley, ‘King of Western Swing,’ Convicted of Murder
The career of one of country music's most successful early stars was derailed after he was convicted of murdering his wife.
Spade Cooley was known as the self-proclaimed King of Western Swing in the 1950s. His band was one of the most popular live acts in the country during that era. The acclaimed fiddler scored hits including "Shame on You," hosted an enormously popular TV show and also appeared in a number of Western movies.
Cooley's downfall came about in 1961, shortly after he filed for divorce from his second wife, Ella Mae, with whom he had three children. The bandleader — who, according to Shame! Shame! A Saga of Spade Cooley, King of Western Swing, was an alcoholic and also abused pills — was wildly jealous of his younger, attractive wife, accusing her of multiple affairs.
After he filed for divorce, they attempted to reconcile, and on April 3, 1961, Cooley killed Ella Mae in their home by savagely beating her to death, reportedly crushing a cigarette against her skin afterward to make sure she was dead. The murder took place in front of the couple's daughter, Melody, who testified against her father in a sensational trial that ended in a conviction on Aug. 19, 1961 — 60 years ago today.
Cooley was sentenced to life in prison on Aug. 22, 1961, but in another strange twist, the State of California granted him parole after he served eight years. Cooley — who had been a model prisoner — was scheduled for parole on Feb. 22, 1970, but was granted a temporary furlough to perform at a charity concert on Nov. 23, 1969.
He completed the concert to a standing ovation, and afterward was reportedly excited about the prospect of a possible comeback. But his excitement was cut short when he suffered a massive heart attack and died backstage at the event, bringing a fittingly bizarre end to one of the strangest stories in country music history.
Once one of country's most recognizable stars, Cooley has been virtually forgotten in the decades since his death.
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