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!
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.