“Murder!” he says: The Spade Cooley Story

Fred Bals
13 min readJan 27, 2020

He says murder, he says, every time we kiss
He says murder, he says, at a time like this
He says murder, he says, is that the language of love?

Let us consider the case of one Donnell Clyde Cooley. Born in 19 and 10 in a tornado cellar in Pack Saddle Creek, Oklahoma. Parents a mix of Native American and Anglo, so the young Cooley was legally considered a Native American. Taught how to play the fiddle by his Daddy. By age 25, he was married and living in the Golden Land of California — arriving, as Cooley liked to tell the story, with a fiddle under his arm and but a nickel in his pocket.

It was in Modesto, California that Donnell Clyde Cooley picked up his nickname, drawing a flush three times during an all-night poker game — each time with the same suit. Over the years Spade embellished the story until those hands became three straight spade flushes in a row. The possibility of making even one straight flush is about 13,000 to 1, and it’d be more likely that a bolt of lightning would have blasted from a clear night sky and fried Spade right then and there in his chair before he’d pull three straight flushes in a row.

But maybe… maybe it did happen once on a hot night in Modesto, California, the kerosene lamp hissing and its light flickering on the sweaty, tired faces of the men gathered around a table. Men who were trying to ignore the fact that in a few hours they’d be back into their routine of back-breaking labor. But right now the whiskey and the jokes are good, the cards are hot, and they’re all still reluctant to give up the night. One more hand, just one more hand. And then watching that kid, Cooley, pulling not one, not two, but three straight flushes in a row. All in spades.

Maybe it happened. And maybe Spade used up all the luck that he had in his life during that one night.

But if he did use up all his luck, nobody could tell for awhile.

Spade Cooley with Roy Rogers (both kneeling)

By the 1930s, Spade was in Los Angeles and playing hot enough on the fiddle that he was picking up regular gigs with the country-western bands working the L.A. circuit. One of those bands was the Sons of the…

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Fred Bals

Corporate Storyteller. Tech enthusiast. Mini Cooper fanboy. One-time chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Husband of Peggy. Human of Lily Rose.