"Spade" Cooley was born Donnell Clyde Cooley on December 17, 1910, in Grand, Oklahoma.
Cooley's 18-month engagement at Santa Monica's Venice Pier Ballroom was record-breaking for the early half of the 1940s. His "Shame on You", released on Columbia's Okeh label, was recorded in December 1944, and was No. 1 on the country charts for two months. Beginning in June 1948, Cooley began hosting a variety show on KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, California broadcast from the Santa Monica Pier Ballroom. The show became a mainstay of television in the area, and won local Emmy awards in 1952 and 1953.
Cooley was in a so-called "battle of the bands," the date of which has not been documented, with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys at the Venice Pier Ballroom. Afterward, Cooley claimed he won and began to promote himself as the King of Western Swing. Some music aficionados insist Wills deserved the title "King of Western Swing", and Fort Worth's Milton Brown should be called "Father of Western Swing". But apparently the first documented use of Western swing for this style of music was in 1942 by Cooley's promoter at the time, Forman Phillips.
Cooley suspected his second wife, Ella Mae Cooley (née Evans), 38, who had been a singer in his band before they married 15 years earlier, of repeatedly being unfaithful. In March 1961, she told a friend she had had an affair with Roy Rogers in 1952 or 1953. She soon asked Cooley, who had had his own affairs, for a divorce. On March 23, Spade Cooley filed for divorce, citing "incompatibility" and seeking custody of their three children, Melody, Donnell Jr. and John.
On April 26, 1961, Cooley was indicted by a Kern County grand jury for the murder of his wife on April 3 at the couple's Willow Springs ranch home. Cooley's then 14-year-old daughter, Melody, reportedly told the jury she watched in terror as her father beat her mother's head against the floor, stomped on her stomach, then crushed a lit cigarette against her skin to see whether she was dead. Cooley claimed his wife had been injured by falling in the shower.
He was unsuccessfully defended by attorney P. Basil Lambros in what was the longest case in county history at the time, and was convicted of first-degree murder by a Kern County jury on August 21, 1961 after unexpectedly withdrawing an insanity plea. He was spared death in the gas chamber and sentenced to life in prison.