Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Story of Stagger Lee - Part 1

Yesterday we featured Tommy Roe's version of Stagger Lee, a Top 20 Hit in 1971, as a Forgotten Hits "Extra" ... but I thought that you might find it interesting to once again trace the origins of this song.

Stagger Lee (also recorded as both Stack-O-Lee and Stag-O-Lee) was first recorded in 1923 by blues / folk artist Mississippi John Hurt. The song tells the story of a murder that took place on Friday, December 27th (most often erroneously remembered as occurring on Christmas Eve) at The Bill Curtis Saloon in St. Louis, Missouri, back in 1895. According to legend, "Stag" Lee Shelton, a cab driver (and black pimp), shot and killed William "Billy" Lyons with his 44-caliber revolver after Billy snatched Stag's Stetson Hat. The story (as documented in The St. Louis Globe-Democrat in their issue dated Saturday Morning, December 28, 1895) read as follows:

"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.
(NOTE spelling: Sheldon's CORRECT name was Shelton but it was misspelled throughout the newspaper article)

Sheldon, a carriage driver, also colored, lives at North Twelfth Street.

"Lyons and Sheldon 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 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. 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. 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. Lee Sheldon is also known as "Stag" Lee."

Lyons eventually died from the gun shot wounds inflicted that night. Shelton was tried and convicted and ultimately served prison time for the crime. In fact, he died in prison in 1912 of tuberculosis.

Although a total of five similar murders occurred that SAME day in St. Louis, for some reason the story of THIS murder spread and grew ... soon embellished and set to song. (Clearly, not only do you not tug on Superman's cape or spit in the wind or pull the mask of the ol' Lone Ranger ... but you ALSO do not mess around with Stag Lee's Hat!!!) In fact, Lee Shelton's "badness" grew at one point (according to Julius Lester's "Black Folktales") to near mythical proportions:

"Stagolee was, undoubtedly and without question, the baddest nigger that ever lived.
Stagolee was so bad that the flies wouldn't even fly around his head in the summertime, and the snow wouldn't fall on his house in the winter."

Most historians consider the Mississippi John Hurt version to be the most definitive, as it recounts most of the elements that eventually appeared in most of the musical retellings of the tale.

The first CHARTED version of Stagger Lee occurred in 1950 when an artist called simply Archibald hit The Top Ten on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues Chart. This was the first time the common melody associated with this tune came into our consciousness.

Nine years later, Lloyd Price would top both Billboard's R & B Chart as well as their Pop Chart with his rendering. (We'll tell you a little bit more about that record in tomorrow's installment of Forgotten Hits: The Story of Stagger Lee.)