When he died in 1969, country-western bandleader Spade Cooley was on 72-hour parole from the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, where he was serving a life sentence for the beating death of his wife, Ella Mae.
He had just received a standing ovation from the audience of 2,800 at the Oakland Auditorium — where he was performing in a benefit for the Alameda County Deputy Sheriff's Assn. — and stepped backstage to talk with friends when he collapsed.
Shortly before the violin performance, which brought cheers from the audience, Cooley thanked the deputies for "the chance to be free for a while."
Cooley had suffered at least one previous heart seizure. That was in 1961, during his murder trial on charges that he had beaten, stomped and choked his estranged wife to death. At least part of the attack was witnessed by their 14-year-old daughter. Cooley sat in blood-soaked clothing for hours before calling for help.
Born Donnell C. Cooley in Grand, Okla., the western bandleader was one quarter Cherokee Indian and was originally trained as a cellist. He started playing violin with western bands while a high school student in Oregon.
He later joined a traveling band and received the nickname "Spade" during a poker game while playing with a band called the Southern Stars in Oregon. He said the name stuck after he won several straight hands with spade flushes.
He had been known as "The King of Western Swing" back in the 1940s and '50s, when he led a 30-piece band, was a fiddle virtuoso and hosted his own television variety show.
Now perhaps his greatest claim to fame is an ignominious one: He's believed to be the only convicted killer with a star on the Walk of Fame. On Feb. 8, 1960, the foundation for Cooley's star was laid. Just a year later, at age 51, he sat in a cell in Vacaville.