Over the years, versions of Stagger Lee were recorded by artists as diverse as Beck, Pat Boone, James Brown, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Clash, Neil Diamond, Dion, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Grateful Dead, Woody Guthrie, Bill Haley and the Comets, The Isley Brothers, Tom Jones, Huey Lewis and the News, Jerry Lee Lewis, Memphis Slim, Elvis Presley, Professor Longhair, Ma Rainey, The Righteous Brothers, Tom Rush, Taj Mahal, Ike and Tina Turner, The Ventures and Doc Watson ... as well as literally HUNDREDS of others! Yesterday we featured a couple of the earliest known recordings, including a 1923 reading by Mississippi John Hurt and the first CHARTED version by Archibald, a Top Ten Hit on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues Chart back in 1950.
And the legend of Stagger Lee lives on ... in his song Shoulder Holster from his Blue Moves album, Elton John sings "It was just like Frankie and Johnny ... and it was just like Stagger Lee" ... in the recent film Black Snake Moan, actor Samuel L. Jackson's character sings a little bit of the song. And, although we kidded about it yesterday, I've just GOT to believe that Jim Croce was at least in SOME way inspired by the escapades of Stagger Lee when he wrote his #1 Hits You Don't Mess Around With Jim and Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. Suffice to say, Stagger Lee's fame was widespread and legendary.
The biggest hit version came in 1959 when Lloyd Price took his rocked-up version all the way to #1 on The Billboard Chart.
DIDJAKNOW? - 1: Dick Clark was so concerned about the song's description of a murder that he had Price cut another version for airing on American Bandstand!!!
He needn't have worried ... it was the original, unedited "scary" version that topped the charts!!!
DIDJAKNOW? - 2: Lloyd's cousin was a guy named Larry Williams, who also served as Price's driver and valet. When he, too, got interested in music, Lloyd got him an audition with Specialty Records, where he recorded the '50's rock and roll classics Short Fat Fannie and Bony Moronie. The Beatles (and John Lennon in particular!) thought enough of Larry's recordings to record their own versions of Dizzy Miss Lizzy, Slow Down and Bad Boy.
DIDJAKNOW? - 3: The background singers on Lloyd Price's version of Stagger Lee were none other than The Ray Charles Singers, a move Price says was calculated to help him cross-over to a white record-buying audience.
(P.S. It worked!!!)
In 1967, The Wicked Wilson Pickett cut a GREAT soulful version that went all the way to #17 on The Cash Box Chart. (It remains yet ANOTHER Top 20 Hit COMPLETELY ignored by oldies radio today ... and that's a shame because it's a GREAT version!!!)
And, of course, it was Tommy Roe's 1971 rendition (featured earlier this week in Forgotten Hits) that inspired this whole expose in the first place!
Wanna do MORE research on this tune??? You'll find ALL kinds of referrals for Stagger Lee on the web ... just google that title and nearly 100,000 references will pop up!!!
In fact, it's now speculated that part of the reason the story of Stagger Lee
spread as quickly (and as widely) as it did was due to a song called The Bully Song first featured in the Broadway Musical The Widow Jones back in 1895, about three months BEFORE the murder of Billy Lyons took place at Bill Curtis' Saloon.
In those original lyrics, we're warned:
"Have you heard about that Bully that just came to town?
He's down among the niggers, layin' their bodies down.
I'm a-lookin' for that bully and he must be found."
It's believed by some that Stagger Lee's name was later inserted as the source of some of the nasty deeds performed by The Bully ... and that as the legend grew, more and more evilness was attributed to The Stag Man over time.
Meanwhile, with literally HUNDREDS of recorded versions of the song in existence, Stagger Lee's reputation for "badness" grew over the years ... so much so that in one version, Stagger Lee appears in hell after he is executed and is SO bad that he takes control of The Devil's Kingdom!!!
Rolling Stone Magazine (when naming Stagger Lee one of the 500 Greatest and Most Influential Rock And Roll Songs Of All-Time) referred to Stagger Lee as "the original gangsta"!!! I think they just may be right!