STAG­GER LEE

Public News (Houston) - - FRONT PAGE - by Mark Cramp­ton

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

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