Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee

Lee Shelton (also known as Stagger Lee, Stagolee, Stackerlee, Stack O'Lee, Stack-a-Lee and by several other spelling variants) was a black cab driver and a pimp [ [ The Story of Stagger Lee in the Riverfront Times of St. Louis] ] convicted of murdering William Lyons on Christmas Eve, 1895 in St. Louis, Missouri. The crime was immortalized in a blues folk song that has been recorded in hundreds of different versions.

Lee Shelton was not just a common pimp, but as described by Cecil Brown, [Brown, Cecil, Stagolee Shot Billy, Harvard University Press, 2003] "Lee Shelton belonged to a group of pimps known in St. Louis as the 'Macks'. The macks were not just 'urban strollers'; they presented themselves as objects to be observed."

Shelton died in prison in 1912, of tuberculosis.

The crime

A story appearing in the St. Louis, Missouri "Globe-Democrat" in 1895 says:

William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o'clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Shelton, a carriage driver. Lyons and Shelton were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Shelton's hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Shelton withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor Shelton 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. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Shelton is also known as 'Stagger' Lee. []

Lyons eventually died of his injuries. Shelton was tried, convicted, and served prison time for this crime. This otherwise unmemorable crime is remembered in a song. In some older versions of the song, the name of the other party is given as "Billy Deslile" or "De Lion".

tagger Lee as archetype

Immortalized in song, Stagger Lee has become an archetype, the embodiment of a tough-guy black man -- one who is sly, streetwise, cool, lawless, amoral, potentially violent, and who often defies white authority. [cite web |url=,12102,951565,00.html |title=Godfather of Gangsta |accessdate=2007-12-17 |author=Brown, Cecil |date=9 May 2003 |publisher=The Guardian]

Author and music critic Greil Marcus explicitly ties the Stagger Lee archetype to Sly Stone and his album "There's a Riot Goin' On" in his book "".

The songs

The song has been recorded hundreds of times by a great variety of performers. The version recorded by Mississippi John Hurt is considered by some commentators to be definitive, containing all of the elements that appear in other versions. A cover with different lyrics was a chart hit for Lloyd Price in 1959; Dick Clark felt that the original tale of murder was too morbid for his "American Bandstand" audience, and insisted that they be changed (with no murder taking place). [cite web|url=|title=Bob Shannon's Behind The Hits: Stagger Lee|accessdate=2008-03-09] Despite the changes, it was the original version of the song that made #1 and was ranked #456 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

There is speculation that "Stag O Lee" songs predated even the 1895 incident, and Lee Shelton may have gotten his nickname from earlier folk songs. Other sources say that black roustabouts on Mississippi River docks were called "stack o lees" as they would stack cargo on the lee side of the docks. The first published version of the song was done by folklorist John Lomax in 1910. The song was well known in African American communities along the lower Mississippi River by the 1910s.

Before World War II, it was almost always known as "Stack O'Lee". W.C. Handy wrote that this probably was a nickname for a tall person, comparing him to the tall smoke-stack of the large steamboat "Robert E. Lee". By the time that W.C. Handy wrote the explanation in the 1920s, "Stack O' Lee" was already familiar in United States popular culture, with recordings of the song made by such pop singers of the day as Cliff Edwards.

An early Blues recording of the song from 1928 was made by Mississippi John Hurt, a blues musician. As in all such pieces, there are many (sometimes anachronistic) variants on the lyrics. Several older versions give Billy's last name as "De Lyons" or "Deslile".

Lloyd Price also recorded another version of the song in 1958 at the request of Dick Clark, who felt the original lyrics were not appropriate for his American Bandstand audience. The subject was changed from gambling to fighting over a woman, and instead of a murder, the two yelled at each other, and made up the next day.

Other well known artists who have recorded it include Ma Rainey, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Duke Ellington, Memphis Slim, Woody Guthrie, Bill Haley & His Comets, Neil Diamond, Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, Fats Domino, Doc Watson, Dr. John, Tom Rush, Travis MacRae, Professor Longhair, Huey Lewis and the News, and The Isley Brothers. A version by The Fabulous Thunderbirds can be found on the "Porky's Revenge" soundtrack.

The Grateful Dead recorded a version of the tale which focuses on the fictionalized hours after the death of "Billy DeLion", when Billy's wife Delia tracks down Stagger Lee in a local saloon and "she shot him in the balls" [] in revenge for Billy's death.

Elton John's 1976 "Blue Moves" album included the song "Shoulder Holster", about a vengeful woman out to kill her cheating ex. The song begins with the lyrics "It was just like Frankie and Johnny, And it was just like Stagger Lee".

The 1979 album "London Calling" by The Clash includes a ska version (a cover of a song by the Jamaican rocksteady group The Rulers) titled "Wrong 'Em Boyo", in which Stagger Lee is explicitly the hero and Billy the villain.cite web
title=The Clash
work=Artist History
] Another variant by Austin blues artist Steve James retells the story from Stagger Lee's perspective, as the underprivileged child of a prostitute and a steamboat worker, and as with the Clash's version, Billy is not innocent.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, by contrast, present an even more violent and profane version of the song "Stagger Lee" on their 1996 album "Murder Ballads". This version retakes a street "toast poem" on Stagolee [ [ Largehearted Boy: Book Notes - Derek McCulloch ("Stagger Lee") ] ] . Toasts were 'pre-rap' poems and stories especially popular among those in the "life" and among prisoners.

More recently, the Black Keys recorded a song entitled "Stack Shot Billy" on their 2004 album "Rubber Factory". In 2005, Chris Whitley and Jeff Lang recorded their own arrangement of the song, called "Stagger Lee", ultimately released on their 2006 CD Dislocation Blues.

A version of Staggolee performed by Pacific Gas & Electric was included on the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino's film Death Proof, the second portion of the 2007 double-feature Grindhouse.

In the 2007 film "Black Snake Moan", Samuel L. Jackson's character sings a boastful version of the song from Stagger Lee's perspective, titled "Stackolee". This version is based on R. L. Burnside's rendition which can be heard on the album "Well, Well, Well".

In Modern Life is War´s 2007 record Midnight in America the song Stagger Lee recounts a version of the tale, in which Stagger Lee looks for a fight, with nothing to lose after his girlfriend left him. He notices a man staring at him, turns around, and puts his colt .45 to the man's head. The man pleads Stagger for his life, because he has a wife and child back home. He then tells Stagger he's a friend, not a foe, and that his girlfriend is at a club with Billy called the Flamingo. Stagger pistol-whips him in the teeth, steals a fast car, and heads to the Flamingo. The song ends with him kicking open the door, and seeing the terror in the eyes of his girlfriend and her lover, draws his pistol to deal punishment to the two and then the refrain "Oh Stagger Lee, you're a bad, bad man/Oh Stagger Lee, you're going straight to hell".

Contemporary interpretations and notable allusions

In the 1980s, pro wrestler Junkyard Dog used the name (and theme song) Stagger Lee to surprise his rival Ted DiBiase, returning from a "Loser Leaves Town" match under a mask during an infamous feud in Mid-South Wrestling. [ [ Mid-South Wrestling ] ]

Stagg R. Leigh is the assumed name under which Thelonious Ellison, the protagonist of Percival Everett's novel "Erasure" (2001) writes his parody of blaxploitation literature "My Pafology" (later changed to "Fuck"). [ [ BOOKFORUM | winter 2002 ] ]

Contemporary artist Beck covered Mississippi John Hurt's interpretation, "Stagolee," on Hurt's tribute album "Avalon Blues," released by Vanguard Records in 2001.

"Stagger Lee", a graphic novel both telling the history of the story and a fictionalized version of it with political themes, was published by Image Comics in May 2006, written by Derek McCulloch and drawn by Shepherd Hendrix (ISBN 1582406073). [ [ Home - Santa Cruz Sentinel ] ]

Josh Ritter references Stagger Lee in his song "Folk Bloodbath". (2008)


External links

* [ The Myth and Song of Stagger Lee] History of Lee Shelton and of the song. A list of over 400 recordings as of September, 2008.
* [ The Stagger Lee Files]
* [ Comprehensive list of Stagger Lee recordings] 229 recordings as of Sept. 24, 2007.
* [ Mississippi John Hurt's version]
* [ website for Irish Stagger Lee]
* [] A private collection of around 270 versions (as of October, 2008).

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