I’m sure that at some time in your life, you have heard someone sing the old song, Stagger Lee.
Believe it or not, Stagger Lee [I will continue to call every version of the song Stagger Lee, no matter what the artist calls it], with well over 200 known variations, recorded over 600 times by just about any and every musician you could ever name, was about a real crime, a saloon shooting between two real men, that occurred 121 years ago!
So now I’ll tell you the REAL story behind the song Stagger Lee. But be warned, this article is NOT – I say again – NOT - PC by modern standards! [Auto correct went nuts! Kept trying to replace damn near everything!]
This article is from the Dec 28, 1895 St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat newspaper: Shot in Curtis’s Place William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets. by Lee Sheldon, also colored. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. The discussion drifted to politics and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon drew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. He was removed to the city hospital. At the time of the shooting, the saloon was crowded with negroes. Sheldon is a carriage driver and lives at North Twelfth Street. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Sheldon is also known as “Stag” Lee. [Note: Shelton’s last name was misspelled in the article as Sheldon. And this is the actual newspaper article, 121 years old, so, again, it was NOT PC!]
Now, obviously this article just sets up and begs for some follow-up! Both Stag Lee Shelton and Billy Lyons were notorious members of the St. Louis lawless underworld and politics (Gee, criminals engaged in politics, or perhaps politicians engaged in lawbreaking – who would ever believe that?). Stag Lee was a well-known member of the Macks, a St. Louis group of organized procurers and panderers (Pimps, to be more modern and less PC!), and connected with the floating Mississippi Riverboat brothel Stack Lee (owned by the Memphis Lee family). Macks were readily discernable by their “flash” clothing and lifestyle. (No! Pimps wearing flashy clothing and living large? Really?)
Stag Lee was likewise one of the leaders of the Four Hundred Club, a St. Louis “black-and-tan [interracial] social club” with an extremely unsavory reputation! He was also a Democratic political party Negro organizer (at the time the Democrats were in a vicious battle to retain their political control of St. Louis, at that time one of the largest Democratcontrolled cities in America.) In other words, Stag Lee was the epic incarnation of a “dangerous black man”; one who was sly, streetwise, cool, lawless, unscrupulous and violent; a “big bad man” (shades of Leroy Brown!).
Less is known about Billy Lyons, except that he also had criminal and political connections. He was a Stevedore, a Union organizer, a Republican political party Negro organizer, and apparently a “business” as well as political rival of Stag.
According to witnesses, a couple nights after Christmas, Stag Lee and Billy were in a local bar, drinking, had some kind of argument, and Lee grabbed and crushed Billy’s bowler hat. Billy in turn knocked off or took Stag Lee’s Stetson hat (genuine Stetsons were just as expensive then as they are now, time-wise cultural “symbols of masculinity”!) So Stag Lee pulled out his pistol, shot Billy without remorse, retrieved his Stetson, and left. Billy eventually died, and Stag Lee was tried for murder and sent to prison (but pardoned and released 10 years later). Well, someone made up a song about the event – first heard on the docks as a “working shanty” - and it became common on the lower end of the Mississippi, on the docks and in the fields both, within a few more years! The first known stage production of Stagger Lee was an instrumental version by Prof. Charlie Lee (itinerate piano player), promoted in the Kansas City Leavenworth Herald newspaper in 1897. The first known instrumental recording of Stagger Lee was in 1923, by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, and it was a hit, leading to several other recordings – all instrumentals - in the north east! https://youtu.be/7TT1gFqxN8 4?list=PLXN6CjTsfmb3t-hFR_ xv39trAm_otY_FE
The first recorded version of Stagger Lee with lyrics – as “blues”, naturally – was in 1924 by Lovie Austin https://youtu.be/ PwGNzCkJ-tk
Ma Rainey recorded another lyrical version – released for a ‘B” side in 1926 - with a smiling young fellow named Louis Armstrong on cornet! https://youtu. be/eyaeJEWiAik
Well, since then, it seems like every artist/singer/musician out there HAD to record a version of Stagger Lee – some good, some bad – some really bad. Apparently, each one also felt compelled to rewrite, add to or change the lyrics, name and story! Here are a few: How about the 1961 version by Pat Boone! https://youtu.be/ VvwVR3-A_n4
Another traditional version I like is by Huey Louis and the News – I don’t know if it’s on an album, but they sometimes play it in concerts https://youtu.be/FUiVGlU3Rx8
I am not always a fan of Quentin Tarantino, but I am a BIG fan of Kurt Russell (especially when he plays a bloodthirsty killer – good or bad!), and the Pacific Gas & Electric version of Stagger Lee is certainly, undoubtedly my favorite version – so the Death Proof movie soundtrack – which it is on - is great! By the same token, Samuel L.
Jackson’s version in Black Snake Moan is about the most terrible thing I have ever heard! (So I am NOT going to link to it!) OK, OK, since you insist – it’s on your OWN heads! https://youtu.be/ vrs4yqwL-Wg
Or, possibly, the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds video version might be the worst! https://youtu.be/
uINi-b5Fi1o (The version he sings in concert is much better.) Nope, nope, Jackson’s is STILL the worst! Now please don’t hiss or boo, but folks, believe it or not, the version of Stagger Lee I like SECOND BEST (remember, I already said I like the PG&E version BEST!), was by – wait for it! – by Sonny and Cher on their TV show! Sonny and Cher actually sang it twice on their TV shows – on an early show in April 1971, and again on another show in a later season. This is from the later show https:// youtu.be/qecN_6ToVIc
So, somewhere out there, I am sure there is a version of Stagger Lee, by some artist you will love, waiting for you to discover it!
And, honestly, is there just ANY song ANYWHERE that Elvis DIDN’T record? Well, even Elvis recorded a short one minute version (a live rehearsal out-take, actually, from a 1970 Vegas show)! So that’s how I will end this article https://youtu.be/4qiaI6SZqK8