The Kid from Gower Gulch (1950), starring Spade Cooley, was an obvious reference to the district (although it was filmed over in Pearblossom).
A Nickel and a Fiddle
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.
Driven to succeed, Cooley managed to acquire the mansion on a hill that cowboy crooners moon over.
A Young Spade Cooley
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.
Spade & daughter Melody, age 3
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.
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.
Straight Flush, in Spades
His parents were a mix of Anglo and Native American, and Cooley attended Indian school. His father, John, was an amateur fiddler who carried his instrument to local hoedowns.
Donnell was enthralled by the fiddle, and it turned out he had a knack. His father saw that he was properly trained.
The boy took classical lessons on both violin and cello from a teacher at his school. After years of practice and study, he became adept not only at playing, but also at reading music and writing arrangements—talents that would later serve him well.
The Oklahoma ranch failed as the Great Depression arrived, and Cooley is believed to have moved west with his family, settling for a few years in Oregon’s Cascade Range, near Packsaddle Creek east of Salem.
In 1931, Donnell Cooley, then 21, arrived in Modesto, Calif. He scraped out a living as a laborer by day and fiddler by night. After hours, he played cards.
According to country music historian Richard Kienzle, Cooley got his nickname during a poker game one night in Modesto. Three times, Cooley drew a straight flush—each in spades.
By the time he was 25, Cooley had a wife and a son. Instinct and economic reality told him there was no financial future in Modesto for a part-Indian fiddler with family obligations.
He set off for Hollywood.
His Pal Roy Rogers
One regular gig was with the Sons of the Pioneers, the country and western group known for its smooth vocal harmonies. Its most famous member, Roy Rogers, had graduated to movies by the time Cooley arrived in Hollywood.
But a number of people noted a resemblance between Cooley and Rogers—dark hair, thin eyebrows, narrow eyes—and a mutual friend arranged a meeting between the two men at Republic Pictures, where Rogers was under contract.
They hit it off, and Cooley was hired by Republic at $17 a day to work as Rogers’ stand-in and occasional stunt double. They also developed a fast friendship that would last for years.
At night, Cooley continued gigging with such western swing bands as Walt Shrum and the Colorado Hillbillies and the Rhythm Rangers.
Western swing was cowboy music—a southwestern-bred hybrid of folk, bluegrass, hillbilly, swing and jazz. Its standard bearers were Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, out of Waco, Texas, and Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, out of Fort Worth.
Like traditional bluegrass, most early western swing bands were composed of singers and stringed instruments—guitar, bass, fiddle, banjo, steel guitar. And like jazz, many western swing compositions were loosely arranged, with solo breaks for several instruments.
The popularity of western swing had begun to grow in the southwest as the Depression set in. During the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of impoverished Americans in the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri packed up their possessions and made their way west to the Golden State via Route 66.
Some mark the beginning of the western swing craze as the day in 1940 that Bob Wills and his band arrived in Los Angeles to appear in the film “Take Me Back to Oklahoma,” starring Tex Ritter and his sidekick, Arkansas Slim.
Wills’ visit was the western swing equivalent of the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
All over southern California, men and women began rummaging through trunks and closets for cowboy hats, boots, string ties and rawhide vests. The Okies donned their southwestern duds and two-stepped out to the ballrooms.
They wanted to hear their old-home music, and fellow Okie Spade Cooley was happy to oblige.
Cooley was working a three-week engagement as a sideman for a cowboy-music trio appearing at Santa Monica’s Venice Pier Ballroom, which typically attracted Okies, military men and woman, blue-collar workers and more than a few residents of Farm Security Administration camps.
Cooley was a consummate professional and competent soloist. He certainly was quick with all the western swing fiddle licks. But he was also clearly the best showman on stage.
He was a backslapper with a ready smile, and he had a habit of calling every man he met “son,” like the Looney Tunes cartoon rooster Foghorn Leghorn.
The ballroom manager recognized Cooley’s talents as a front man and musical entrepreneur, and he hired him to put together a house band to meet the new demand for western swing. The gig lasted 18 months—a Venice Pier record.
Western Swing King
After his Venice success, in 1943, Cooley set out to put together the best western swing band in America. He plucked many of the top players from the Los Angeles recording scene, including Johnny Weis, a jazz-style guitarist. He also added a few unexpected players—Paul (Spike) Featherstone, a classically trained harpist; Muddy Berry, a drummer who favored tom-tom flourishes, a la big band legend Gene Krupa, and even an accordionist .
The number of players could vary from gig to gig, but the band typically included more than a dozen musicians and a girl singer. He dressed them in handmade western wear from one L.A.’s top wardrobe designers, paying as much as $500 per outfit for the most elaborate cowboy getups.
For publicity’s sake, Cooley gave his players southwestern nicknames—Joaquin Murphey, Smokey Rogers, Cactus Soldi, Pedro DePaul, Deuce Spriggens—even if they happened to be from Brooklyn, Cleveland or Milwaukee. He also helped rename Helen Hagstrom, his Arkansas-born singer. The blonde bombshell yodeler became famous as Carolina Cotton.
As Johnny Bond, a musician who worked with Cooley early in his career, told Kienzle, author of “Southwest Shuffle”:
(Cooley) was an energetic character. He was always eager to work, eager to please. He had that drive about him that showed that he wanted to get ahead. He wanted to be more than a fiddle player…He had a thing that a lot of musicians didn’t have, and it was called showmanship.
Cooley fashioned himself as Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing,” in a kerchief. He took the title of “King of Western Swing.”
And his band certainly did learn to swing, refining its jazzy style as the regularly featured house band at the Riverside Rancho ballroom.
Featured players traded jazz-style call-and-response riffs, just like Goodman’s big band. Cooley’s orchestra was more polished than the raw sound of Bob Wills’ band, and Cooley’s arrangements often were more complex, with harmonizing among the fiddles or guitars.
On Dec. 4, 1944, Spade Cooley took his orchestra into a recording studio for the first time. The result was the hit single “Shame on You.” Released on Columbia’s OKeh label, it was No. 1 on the folk music charts for two months. It was the first of six hit recordings Cooley would cut over the next two years.
Drinkin’ and Firin’
He had a temper, and he could get especially surly “under drinkin’ conditions,” as steel guitarist Speedy West told Kienzle.
He would get drunk, flash with anger over some perceived slight, then fire half the band. The next day, he’d go, cowboy hat in hand, to beg them to come back.
Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t.
Bassist Deuce Spriggens and singer Carolina Cotton were married in 1945, and they split off into a new orchestra, taking along several other players with them.
When another singer, Ginny Jackson, gave notice during a rehearsal that she planned to quit the band, Cooley tried to throw her off the Santa Monica pier.
And when Capitol Records offered vocalist Tex Williams his own contract, Williams tried to finesse a financial arrangement that would have benefited both himself and Cooley. He proposed to continue singing with Cooley’s band while hiring that same orchestra to back him on his concerts and recordings.
But Spade threw a tantrum, and relations between the men grew icy.
On stage one night before a full house at a San Diego ballroom, Cooley casually handed Williams notice that he was being fired.
Eleven of the 13 band members quit in support of Williams, and most went on to perform as Tex Williams and the Western Caravan, whose hits included “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).”
Ella Mae Auditions
Evans, just 21, apparently had been hired to play clarinet for a gig.
Like most everyone else in southern California, she’d come from somewhere else. Born on a Missouri farm, she and her parents, Elmer and Ethel, had traveled the Depression trail west.
Cooley prevailed upon Evans to audition for him as the featured girl singer after Carolina Cotton left.
“She had no voice,” Bobby Bennett, Cooley’s longtime band manager, told Kienzle.
But she was petite and pretty—5-foot-4 and barely 100 pounds.
Spade had the only vote. Ella Mae won the audition.
One thing then led to another, and Cooley soon divorced his first wife, Anna. Their son, John, was 11 years old.
On stage, Cooley liked to introduce his new wife as “the purtiest little filly in California.”
Cooley wrote an instrumental entitled “Spadella”—from Spade and Ella—in her honor. It was a peculiar musical gift. The quick-paced tune was in a minor key and was dominated by Pedro DePaul’s accordion. It sounded more like anxiety-inducing klezmer than a romantic western ode for newlyweds.
Ella Mae’s singing career, such as it was, was cut short by motherhood. Cooley insisted that she stay home to care for their children, Melody, born in 1946, and Donnell Jr., born in 1948.
Spade and Ella Mae in happier days
Early in their marriage, the Cooleys lived in a mansion on Ventura Boulevard. But Spade thought it was a good idea for the children to grow up in the country.
He bought a large tract of land and built a second home at the edge of the Mojave Desert in Willow Springs, an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles.
Over time, Cooley developed the habit of sleeping in the Ventura house and leaving Ella Mae and the children in isolated Willow Springs.
And as his fame increased, Cooley is said to have sampled scores of the romantic opportunities that presented themselves in the fleshy forms of fans, girl singers, female musicians and various wannabe starlets looking for a leg up in Hollywood.
His Los Angeles mansion proved to be a convenient love shack for the entertainer billed as “the little man with a big talent.”
TV, Radio, Film
Spade Cooley plays
In 1946 he debuted a radio show, “Spade Cooley Time,” on L.A.’s KFVD. He also retooled his band into an orchestra, adding six horns that intensified its swing sound and allowed for even more sophisticated arrangements and instruments.
By 1947, the Riverside Rancho was no longer large enough to accommodate the crowds clamoring to see Cooley and his orchestra perform live. So he signed a seven-year lease on the Santa Monica Ballroom, which became his band’s new home base. It played to crowds of up to 8,000 people there.
In 1948, Cooley began hosting a KTLA-TV variety show, called “The Hoffman Hayride” after its advertising sponsor.
The show program, filmed at the ballroom every Saturday night, was a cross between “Hee-Haw” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” As a KTLA ad put it, “Spade Cooley’s formula for a show with top musical entertainment, a dash of western flavor, and a good sprinkling of comedy has proven to be just what the viewers ordered.”
Guests included budding young stars like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Cooley gained a huge new audience through the program. At the show’s peak, three out of every four television sets in greater Los Angeles were tuned to the “Hoffman Hayride” on Saturday nights.
In the meantime, he stayed busy on Hollywood projects. He appeared in about 50 films, most of them westerns. Some were between-reel “shorts,” but also Cooley starred in a few westerns, and he and his band performed in dozens of others. His credits include titles such as “The Kid from Gower Gulch,” “The Silver Bandit,” “Border Outlaws,” “Singing Sheriff” and “Texas Panhandle.”
The Kid from Gower Gulch
East of the Rockies, Spade Cooley was just another western movie mug in chaps and spurs. But he was famous from Seattle to San Diego as one of the west coast’s biggest stars. His band often toured up and down the coast Sunday through Friday, always returning to Santa Monica for the Saturday night TV show.
When lucrative potential bookings cropped up for dates that were already taken, Cooley would send a look-alike, sound-alike band. At his zenith, Cooley and his manager, Bobbie Bennett, were marshalling three or four western swing bands that performed under the Spade Cooley brand. He sometimes would dash from one gig to the next—lest someone notice that Spade Cooley was absent from a Spade Cooley show.
Between film work, recordings, TV, radio and concerts, Cooley was pulling down $10,000 a week.
Even a heart attack in 1950 did not break Cooley’s stride. Life was good. He must have thought it would go on like that forever. But it didn’t.
The Fad Passes
Cooley’s record contract expired, movie studios stopped calling, and concert bookings petered out. “The Hoffman Hayride” went off the air as crowds stopped turning out at the Santa Monica Ballroom.
KTLA tried replacing that with the scaled-down “Spade Cooley Show,” shot in a television studio.
But Cooley’s drinking had gotten worse over the years, and in 1956, the station canned him. His irascible nature was tolerable when he was a star, but not as a crotchety has-been.
Besides, KTLA had a new hit musical program to fall back on: the champagne music of “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
Cooley made his final recording, “Fidoodlin’,” for the Raynote label, in 1959. It included a single called “Rockin’ the Square Dance,” a sad attempt at a crossover to the new music fad.
He turned 50 the following February, and he announced his retirement. His final public concert was a New Year’s Eve gig in 1960.
He had $15 million in the bank—more than enough to allow him to walk away and enjoy the rest of his life.
But he hadn’t lost the ambition that drove his success, and he wasn’t ready to retire to the desert. He woke up every morning with a new idea about how to make money.
One scheme involved the creation of an all-female western swing novelty band. Its featured performer would be Anita Aros, 28, a classically trained violinist who was a member of Cooley’s last band—and his lover.
When that failed, he pressed forward in a new direction.
Cooley had noted with interest the resounding success of Disneyland, which opened in 1955 in Anaheim, south of Los Angeles in the vast suburban sprawl of Orange County.
He envisioned another theme park that might attract customers from the San Fernando Valley, the booming suburbs north of the city.
Cooley signed on business partners and hired planners to develop Water Wonderland. He bought additional land near his ranch in Willow Springs, 50 miles north of Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley at the edge of the Mojave Desert.
He reasoned that a water park would be an oasis in the desert, and Willow Springs seemed a reasonable distance for day trip from the cities sprouting like mushrooms along L.A.’s northern fringe.
He may have been correct. But other events would render moot his dream of a water park.
Keeping Her Chaste
Cooley had always been paranoid about his wife’s sex life—perhaps because he spent so many nights in the arms of others.
He saw every man as a potential lover. She was rarely allowed to visit Los Angeles. He apparently viewed the isolation of Willow Springs as a geographical chastity belt.
Meanwhile, he was out fiddlin’ with Anita Aros or some other paramour.
“He virtually kept her a prisoner,” Bobbie Bennett, Cooley’s ex-manager, told Kienzle. “He was very jealous of her. Of course he was with another woman, or two or three, every night.”
Ella Mae Cooley
As spring approached in 1961, Ella Mae found Spade spending more and more time at the ranch as he worked on his theme-park project.
By then, Cooley was a full-fledged functioning alcoholic. To boot, he popped pills as whiskey chasers.
High and delusional, he began imagining sexual motives in every move that his wife made.
He monitored her phone calls and demanded the details of her most mundane comings and goings. A trip to the grocery store in nearby Tehachapi could lead to an hour-long inquisition.
Ella Mae had become friends with two of Spade’s theme-park business associates. Spade believed the men were gay, and he grew obsessed with the idea that they were luring her into a free-love sex cult.
The marital relationship became so bizarre that Ella Mae sent her children away to live with a friend.
At some point, she decided that she had had enough. She told Spade that she wanted a divorce. Cooley trumped her by quickly filing himself, citing incompatibility.
But he was soon apologizing, asking his wife to save their marriage.
The domestic trauma likely wore on Ella Mae. In the second week of March 1961, she was hospitalized for emotional problems. At about the same time, she made a peculiar confession to a nurse friend, Dorothy Davis. She said she had had an affair with Roy Rogers in 1952 or ’53.
At the end of March, Cooley contacted an L.A. private detective, Billy Lewis, and asked him to “check up on” his wife, probably to help build his case against a large divorce settlement.
In the meantime, Cooley badgered Ella Mae endlessly, insisting that she admit her infidelities. On March 31, as they bickered in a moving automobile, Ella Mae either jumped or was pushed from the car. She tumbled along the road. She apparently did not seek medical help.
On the night of April 2, Spade Cooley telephoned Billy Lewis and said Ella Mae was ready to discuss her affairs. He handed the receiver to his wife. Lewis recorded the conversation:
“How are you, Mrs. Cooley?”
“I’ve been ill, Mr. Lewis. I almost had a nervous breakdown.”
“Have you done anything you shouldn’t have?”
“Yes, I have, Mr. Lewis.”
She explained she spent “30 or 45 minutes” with a man in a motel the previous fall. She gave Lewis the date and the name of the motel.
Lewis asked her to identify the man.
“I don’t even like to mention his name. I get so sick.”
Lewis awkwardly suggested that Spade was “a forgiving sort of a man.”
Ella Mae replied, “I’ll love him until I die.”
Spade Loses It
He drove home to continue the sexual interrogation of his wife.
After more arguing, she told him she was leaving him, once and for all.
And Cooley lost it.
Melody Cooley in court
Their daughter, Melody, 14, arrived home at about 6:20 p.m. Cooley tried to orchestrate yet another creepy infidelity confession. The girl would later describe the scene in court:
When I entered, he was on the phone. He was talking to his business partner and he said, ‘Don’t call the police.’ He was real sweaty and he had blood spots on his pants. He put down the phone and said, ‘Come in here. I want you to see your mother. She’s going to tell you something.’ He took hold of my arm and took me into the den. The shower was running in the bathroom. Mother was in the shower. He opened the door and said, ‘Get up. Melody’s here. Talk to her.’ He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into the den with both hands. She was undressed. He banged her head on the floor twice. He called her a slut. She couldn’t move. She seemed unconscious. He turned back to mother and said, ‘We’ll see if you’re dead.’ Then he stomped her in the stomach with his left foot. He took a cigarette which he had been smoking and burned her twice.
Melody said her father picked a pistol and menaced her with it, leveling its sights between her eyes. He told her, “You’re going to watch me kill her, Melody. If you don’t, I’ll kill you, too. I’ll kill us all.”
He stared with glazed eyes and warned her not to say anything to the police.
The phone rang, and when Cooley went to answer it, the terrified teenager ran for her life.
At 8 p.m., manager Bobbie Bennett showed up. She could see that Ella Mae was likely dead, but Cooley refused to allow her to call an ambulance. Instead, he called Dorothy Davis, the nurse and family friend, and his married son and daughter-in-law, John and Dorothy Cooley.
They all arrived at about 11 p.m., five hours after the beating, and immediately demanded that Cooley call for help. Spade Cooley made the call himself. But it was too late for Ella Mae.
Ambulance attendant Richard Stickel would later say that as he was loading the battered woman onto a stretcher, Cooley blubbered, “I love you. Please don’t be dead.” Stickel described Cooley as “dazed and incoherent.”
Charged With Murder
Dr. Vincent Troy reported, “There were numerous marks of external violence noted on the body consisting of bruises over the entire body, indicating that the victim had been beaten severely.”
A coroner’s report would note numerous cigarette burns and trauma to her head, neck, chest and genitals. She had suffered vaginal and anal abuse. The cause of death was internal bleeding from a ruptured aorta, a result of punching and kicking.
Law enforcers were called to the hospital. Spade Cooley, seated in the waiting room, told Kern County Sheriff’s Sgt. Thomas Shuell that he may have slapped his wife once or twice. But he said her injuries came when she jumped from their moving car a few days before and then fell in the shower the previous night.
Cooley in custody
Cooley couldn’t explain why his fiddle-playing hands were as swollen and bruised as a prizefighter’s.
District Attorney Kit Nelson brought first-degree murder charges, but Cooley hardly seemed to notice.
At his arraignment, the Associated Press reported that Cooley “shuffled into court like a sleepwalker” and, “as if in a daze, failed to acknowledge introduction of his defense attorney.”
Cooley collapsed in his jail cell a few days after his arrest. His attorney, P. Basil Lambros, explained that Cooley hadn’t eaten since the killing.
Cooley’s health problems, including periodic chest pains and minor heart attacks, delayed the start of the trial until mid-summer.
At Lambros’ suggestion, Cooley pleaded both not guilty and not guilty due to insanity. However, he was examined by three separate court-appointed shrinks, who judged him sane.
Police at the Cooley home
Ten days before the trial began, Lambros arranged a peculiar field trip for Cooley to the scene of the crime—”to try to jog his memory” of what happened that night, as his attorney put it.
Reporters were allowed to traipse along. Cooley told them, “It brings back bitter memories.”
At trial in Bakersfield, prosecutor Nelson called 24 witnesses, including Melody Cooley, who bravely recounted the murder of her mother. Spade Cooley fainted at the defense table as his daughter testified.
The jury of 10 men and two women also heard from Billy Lewis, the private investigator.
He described the bizarre telephone infidelity “confession” by Ella Mae, then went on to say that he had checked the motel where the alleged liaison had occurred. The proprietor had no record of the rendezvous, and Lewis had concluded that it hadn’t happened. He said he could find no evidence that Ella Mae had been unfaithful with anyone.
The trial was heavily publicized, but no witness got more attention than Dorothy Davis, the friend and nurse to whom Ella Mae had confided the Roy Rogers affair. Ella Mae told Davis that she and Rogers had become “intimate” while on a trip to Texas nearly 10 years before.
Davis said she did not believe Ella Mae, who was under emotional duress at the time. She could not explain why the woman would have lied about such a thing.
Reporters contacted the spokesman for Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans. They dismissed the allegation as “ridiculous.”
Spade Speaks Ill
Spade Cooley cries in court
Cooley was his own star witness when it came time for the defense to make its case.
By all accounts, his version of his wife’s death was an odd mixture of lies, fleeting moments of remorse and lurid anecdotes.
Cooley said that on the day of her death, Ella Mae had finally come clean about her various sexual indiscretions.
He said she admitted an affair with Roy Rogers, whom he called “my ex-best friend.” He said the movie star would steal out to Willow Springs while Cooley was performing on his Saturday night TV show.
She also admitted her plan to join the sex cult, Cooley said.
When pressed for details, Cooley rambled on about the homosexual menace in America, including among his business partners. Asked how he knew his partners were gay, Cooley replied, “They brought some boys up to my ranch that were completely on the limp-wrist side.”
At first, Cooley continued to deny that he hit his wife.
He said, “She went into the shower alone. I didn’t push her or shove her. There was a terrible thud.”
He insisted he ran to her aid and found her bloody and unconscious.
He said, “I rubbed her wrists, breathed in her mouth, put cold towels on her head, and I prayed.”
Prosecutor Nelson asked why his daughter Melody would have made up a horrible story about witnessing the murder.
Cooley calmly claimed Melody was angry at him because he forbade her to date older boys.
Later, Cooley changed his tune, testifying, “Rockets ran through my brain when Ella Mae told me of her desire to join a free-love cult. I must have hurt her terrible.”
In his summary, Nelson described the killing as “murder by torture.”
He said, “Mr. Cooley is not normal. He is abnormal, has sadistic tendencies and a dual personality. His recollections are convenient memory to Mr. Cooley, but he doesn’t recall when things look bad for Mr. Cooley.”
The jury agreed. After a month-long trial and 19 hours of deliberation, it convicted Cooley of murder on Aug. 19, 1961.
Against his attorney’s recommendation, Cooley then withdrew his insanity plea, and Judge William L. Bradshaw sentenced him to life in prison. He had cheated the gas chamber. Bradshaw said he took the defendant’s poor health in consideration in opting against capital punishment.
The End Arrives
He was a model inmate there, performing with a jailbird band and building fiddles in the prison hobby shop. He found religion and told fellow prisoners that he wanted to become a Billy Graham-style preacher.
By 1965, he had finally begun to show contrition for his crime.
“I was as wrong as any person can possibly be,” he said in a prison news interview. “There can be no excuse for beating anyone.”
When Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1966, mutual friends from the B-movie business began lobbying for a pardon or parole for Cooley. Reagan waved the magic wand, and in August 1969 the state parole board unanimously recommended parole for Cooley, effective Feb. 22, 1970—his 60th birthday.
Four months before his release, Cooley was granted a three-day furlough to perform in Oakland at a benefit concert for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. He walked onstage to applause from an audience of 3,000 on Nov. 23, 1969. He played three songs, including “San Antonio Rose,” which he dedicated to Bob Wills, who had suffered a debilitating stroke.
Cooley then strode into the wings, where he chatted with musician friends and reporters. He said he was looking forward to returning to work but was concerned about whether his fans would welcome him back.
“Sure, they will,” somebody said.
“I think it’s gonna work out for me,” he said. “I have the feeling that today is the first day of the rest of my life.”
The smile suddenly left his face. He dropped his fiddle, grimaced, clutched his chest and fell dead at 59 years of age.