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A James Ellroy Playlist: From Cooley to Contino

February 23, 2022

In James Ellroy’s world, icons are only as interesting as their fall and their flaws. Ellroy finds ‘rogue cops and shakedown artists’ to be more compelling than the lofty figures of politics or showbiz. When he does take an interest in a celebrity, it’s usually for the secrets that lie behind the persona which can either make them appear more human or more sordid than their glamorous facade. For the latest instalment in my series on James Ellroy and music, we are going to take a look at two stars of the fifties who reached the dizzying heights of fame only to come crashing down with an almighty fall, and are, therefore, perfect specimens to be fictionalised in Ellroy’s work.

Shame on You

Spade Cooley was known as the ‘King of Western Swing’. His breakthrough hit was ‘Shame on You’ in 1944, and it’s slut-shaming lyrics ‘Ran around with other guys / Tried to lie when I got wise’, would prove to be chillingly prophetic. Cooley was convicted of murder after beating his wife Ella Mae Evans to death in 1961. Cooley suspected his wife was being unfaithful and his murderous rage was sparked by his belief that Ella Mae had joined a free love cult.

Ellroy’s interest in Cooley was personal. In My Dark Places, Ellroy notes that Cooley performed at the Desert Inn in El Monte, the same venue where Jean Ellroy was spotted with the Swarthy Man the night she was murdered. Ellroy also states the ‘quasi-Ink Spots’, who recorded a version of ‘Harbour Lights’, which is referenced repeatedly in White Jazz ‘played there’. Ellroy followed Cooley’s murder trial, the longest in county history at the time, with great interest. Cooley makes sporadic appearances in Ellroy’s fiction. The most notable being in LA Confidential where he is portrayed as a violent misogynist who Bud White suspects of murdering underage prostitutes. However, the real killer turns out to be a member of Cooley’s band, the fictional ‘Deuce’ Perkins.

During his incarceration, Cooley’s health declined rapidly. He was due to be paroled on February 22, 1970, reportedly after lobbying for his release from Governor of California Ronald Reagan. However, on November 23, 1969, while on a 72-hour furlough from his prison hospital unit, Cooley died of a heart attack during a benefit gig for the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Alameda County.

Below is a Soundie of Patsy McMahon singing ‘Shame on You’ with Spade Cooley’s band.

Lady of Spain / Contino Medley

At the height of his popularity Dick Contino was known as the ‘World’s Greatest Accordion Player’. He found fame when he won the Horace Heidt/Philip Morris talent contest in 1947 with his rendition of ‘Lady of Spain’, which became his signature piece. Like Cooley, he would suffer a spectacular fall from grace, albeit his sins were notably less grievous than the King of Swing’s. Contino was drafted into the US Army to serve in the Korean War. In a panic, he fled from pre-induction barracks at Ford Ord. He was subsequently sentenced to six months imprisonment at McNeil Island Correctional Center. Although he would go on to military service, and would receive a presidential pardon by Proclamation 3000, the scandal did lasting damage to Contino’s career.

Ellroy had fond boyhood memories of seeing Contino perform on television during the late fifties when the accordionist was trying to rebuild his career. Years later, he managed to track down Contino in Vegas. The two men quickly became friends, swapping stories of LA lore, and Contino agreed that Ellroy could use him as the lead character in the novella ‘Dick Contino’s Blues’. In the novella, Contino crosses paths with Cooley. In Ellroy’s narrative, Contino once had an affair with Cooley’s ill-fated wife Ella Mae: ‘I remembered Fresno, Christmas ’47 – I was young, she was lonely, Spade was in Texas.’ Contino’s wife Leigh Snowden asks him to stop Cooley from beating Ella Mae. Contino drives up to Cooley’s ranch with ‘Shame on You’ playing on the car radio. He finds Cooley in a drunk, stoned and belligerent mood. He sedates Cooley and carries him to his bed, putting him aside his sleeping wife. ‘Keep it hush-hush, dear heart – for both our sakes’ he whispers to Ella Mae in her slumbers. The fact that Contino listens to ‘Shame on You’ as a precursor to this scene is telling. There is a triumvirate of shame with these characters. The shame of the cheating spouse, the shame of Cooley who the reader knows will go on to commit the worst crime of all, and the shame of the trysting lovers Contino and Ella Mae, whose passion is enhanced by the knowledge that what they have done is wrong.

Below is my favourite footage of Contino, performing with the June Taylor Dancers in 1957. This was filmed several years after the draft-dodging scandal, but Contino’s still got it. Find someone who looks at you the way the dancers look at him…

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2022 9:58 pm

    Contino still had “it” until he left God’s good green earth in 2017. As he once said in a interview, “I’ve had more ass than a toilet seat.” R.I.P. Dick Contino.

    • February 24, 2022 8:40 am

      With a woman like Leigh Snowden at home, you wonder why he would even consider it.

      • February 24, 2022 4:03 pm

        Good observation and by all accounts their marriage was a very good one. For what it’s worth, I believe Leigh was deceased when Dick made the statement (a Playboy mag interview, maybe mid-80’s?) Also, he was 26 when he met her so he had sometime to fool around. He was a very, very interesting person and a great entertainer.

      • February 24, 2022 4:10 pm

        Thanks Bill, yes Contino was a terrific entertainer with great stage presence and an easygoing charm. Here in the UK, I probably wouldn’t have heard of him if it hadn’t been for James Ellroy, so I owe him a debt of gratitude
        .

  2. Dan permalink
    February 26, 2022 1:30 am

    Ellroy’s initial promise of writing a Contino story each year for the rest of his career was always a bit of hyperbole, but were there ever actual drafts of additional stories? In the early 2000’s he was still talking about a third novella, but I’ve read an interview not long after where Contino claimed he hadn’t heard from Ellroy in years and thought that Ellroy may have been annoyed that Contino seemingly was getting more attention during the public readings of the published novellas.

    • February 26, 2022 11:31 am

      Thanks Dan, yes a Contino story each year woud have been arduous. But I think many Ellroy fans would have preferred more Contino novellas than the Danny Getchell or even Fred Otash stories that came later. Ellroy probably promised Contino too much, including his rash statement that Contino would be the lead in the second Underworld USA trilogy. I’m working on a follow-up ost on this subject.

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  1. A James Ellroy Playlist: Another Country | The Venetian Vase

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