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Mr Lucky
Music Reviews

Spade CooleyShame on You! SPADE COOLEY

Spade Cooley, the self-proclaimed King of Western Swing, is fascinating for many reasons. First and foremost would be his music, which, despite being as sweet as apple pie, could also swing like the devil. For every lovely violin riff, there was an equally groovy guitar lick. Each polka seemed to be answered by a boogie. Waltzes, stomps, rags, foxtrots and even hillbilly "breakdowns" were all part of the Spade Cooley sound. Being a transplanted Oakie, Spade's sound was unmistakably country, and yet it couldn't have happened anywhere else other than Hollywood. Especially when you consider the lurid ending to his tale.

We find the best of Cooley's music almost embarrassing in its youthful vigor and complete lack of pretension, while still sounding sophisticated. Is that possible? In Spade Cooley's hands it is. A typical number opens with a grand announcement of the merriment to come via the flourishing chords of a harp or the falling jabs of an accordion. Solos are by the accordion, a fiddle or a steel guitar, but also by the strings, who play 1940s Hollywood hoedown riffs in unison. Our guess is that Spade would transcribe his own fiddle solos and write them out for a full orchestra. Whatever his technique, it keeps the "dork" factor ever-present and it forces you to let down your callous, sophisticated guard and question a lifetime of trying to be cool. It takes you back to your silent childhood prayer for rain: Please, dear God. Let it rain so we can forget dodgeball on the playground and instead assemble in the Multi-Purpose Room for square dancing! Please!

Spade Cooley is so hard to categorize because he's so much more than Country or Hillbilly, but he's not quite Roots and he's not Jazz, even though he plays jazzy. Knowing he had a drinking problem and was probably at times somewhat of a creep makes the whole show all that much more interesting. Cooley claimed he was the "King of Western Swing", both crowning himself and coining the term for the new swinging hillbilly rhythms. History (and common sense) would favor the great Bob Wills (and his Texas Playboys) as King. But Spade Cooley is just about as important and possibly more influential (especially in terms of Hollywood) than Wills. He just doesn't have a really suitable title. Ultimately, comparing Wills and Cooley is pointless, as their sounds were so completely different. The fact is, Spade Cooley was merely great, whereas in our book, Bob Wills was 'pert near a genius. Cooley's sound was very modern at the time, where Wills' was more traditional and firmly rooted in the blues. Wills' music and performance seemed effortless and Cooley gave the impression her was trying harder to please.

Cooley's instrumentals were mostly hot but he featured many vocal numbers by Tex Williams. We have to admit that at first, we found Williams' vocals a real drag, bringing down the polka action. His numbers were slow, but gentle folks still knew how to dance in the 1940s and a slow number is imperative for smooching or just sitting out the song. In fact, Williams is a more than pleasant vocalist, in the Phil Harris vein, and before long you look forward to his songs. Williams was approached by Capitol Records to record on his own. When Cooley found out, he fired Williams. Cooley then watched most of his orchestra follow Williams, leaving him to start from scractch at the height of his popularity. People will tell you that Spade Cooley never quite recovered from the loss but we think a lot of his post-Tex Williams material is great. Tex Williams was very good, but he wasn't as imperative to the Cooley sound as Bob Wills' vocalist, Tommy Duncan, was to the Texas Playboys.




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