originally published September 22, 2012

“The night was clear, and the moon was yellow, and the leaves came tumbling down.”

When those words trickle through my headphones or ooze from my speakers, it’s a call to the volume knob. Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” is one of the finest rock ‘n roll singles from 1959 – indeed, one of the finest singles ever pressed. If you don’t know it, then your education has been incomplete. Get thee to Youtube now and be healed.

Most great hit singles fall short of being worthy of an entire article. I could spend a thousand words fan-boying the hell out of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There”, but it’d be overflowing with filler, like mentioning seven or eight times how only a soulless monster could fail to find the song’s groove totally mesmerizing. Why bother?

“Stagger Lee” is different. “Stagger Lee” has a backstory based in reality, and the song itself has lived a more rich and full life than most.

(this little 45 has been in the shit, man)

Atop the jumping rhythm and inferno-esque horns is a set of lyrics about gambling, vengeance and murder. It starts with an argument over a dice game between Stagger Lee and Billy. Stagger has lost all his money and his “brand new Stetson hat” to Billy, so he goes home, gets his gun, heads to the bar and shoots Billy dead. In one verse, Billy pleads for his life, citing a sickly wife and three kids for mercy. It’s a jaunty, happy tune.

It’s also an outright bastardization of a real event. Stagger Lee was a real guy.

Lee Shelton was a carriage driver and a local pimp in St. Louis. When you picture the stereotypical 1970’s pimp, with gold chains, wide lapels and floppy hats, Shelton would have been the 1895 equivalent. He was part of a ‘pimp group’ (which sounds like a 19th century type of street gang) known as the Macks. The Macks wanted to be noticed; they wanted to be known.

So on a December night in 1895, Shelton was drinking in Bill Curtis’s saloon with his buddy, William “Billy” Lyons. There was no gambling, just a lot of drinking. Reports say they were having a boisterous, merry ol’ time until politics came up and things got real. Billy grabbed Shelton’s hat off his head. Shelton demanded it back. Billy said no – I suppose he saw this as an alternative when he ran out of salient points to counter Shelton’s stance on conservative fiscal policy.

There was no quarrel over money, no going home and plotting revenge. But the song gets the part about the hat right. The hat was all it took for Shelton to pull out his pistol and shoot Billy in the gut. That must have been one hell of a hat.

The murder was fairly unremarkable. A pimp shoots a guy in a drunken bar fight. Shelton went to prison and served less than 15 years of his 25-year sentence. In 1911 he was arrested for pistol-whipping another man (also named Billy) to death while robbing his house. In March of 1912, Lee Shelton died in a prison hospital from tuberculosis.

In the years after Shelton’s death, a folk song began to circulate around the southern Mississippi River region. The story made use of Shelton’s nickname, ‘Stag Lee’. Over the years it was adapted to Stackalee, Stackolee, Stagolee, and of course Stagger Lee.

The piece was first recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. Waring was a prominent bandleader in (surprise) Pennsylvania who sold millions of records before patenting and marketing the first electric blender. His version of the Lee Shelton story was one of his first hits.

Over the course of the 20th century, as more and more artists fired their own interpretations of this tale through the musical airwaves, the nature of Lee Shelton’s reputation began to mutate. He evolved into a modern archetype. Lee Shelton became a footnote of history; Stagger Lee became a legend.

Stagger Lee was a large black man – this much is rooted in truth. But he was tough, always on the edge of violence. His morals were weak. He ran beyond the boundaries of the law and he didn’t care. Stagger Lee was born under a bad sign, if I may be allowed to mix up my song metaphors. He was bad to the bone. The baddest man in the whole damn town. Meaner than Mr. Mustard. He took the midnight train going anywhere.

Okay, I’ll stop.

But the legend of Stagger Lee became the archetype for every tough guy who ever uttered the phrase “jive turkey” in a Blaxploitation movie. Stories included his ability to transform into animals, the time he fought a duel to the death with Jesse James (the outlaw, not the asshole who screwed over Sandra Bullock), or how he caused the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Seriously, that stuff all found its way into Stagger Lee songs.

Like most folk songs from the early 20th century, there was no fixed set of lyrics because the songs originated before the technology existed to allow anyone to record a definitive version. Frank Hutchinson recorded the version in 1927 that Bob Dylan would cover in 1993. Mississippi John Hurt slapped an amazing version to vinyl in 1928 – that’s the one that Beck covered in 2001. Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Woody Guthrie all cut versions of the song.

Then in 1958 Lloyd Price’s version hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It seemed as though America had selected the true incarnation of the Stagger Lee story. Until Dick Clark messed it up.

Dick was worried that a song with so many adult themes may cause his American Bandstand dancers to lose control and begin stabbing each other and the crew repeatedly before a shocked national television audience. So he asked Price to draft new lyrics. The ‘Bandstand’ version also got a lot of airplay, telling the tale of Stagger and Billy arguing over a girl (no gambling). Stagger goes home and pouts, Billy feels bad, and they make up and stay friends forever and ever. Luckily, the good version was the hit.

Other notable covers of the song either got radio play or a lot of listens as an album track. It was covered by the Grateful Dead, Tommy Roe, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Pacific Gas & Electric, Taj Mahal, and in the movie Black Snake Moan, Samuel L. Jackson.

The Stagger Lee tale was interpreted by the Black Keys in “Stack Shot Billy”, and the story got an entirely new spin and a bouncy ska beat on the Clash’s “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”, which was actually a cover of a song by Jamaican rocksteady group the Rulers. In this story, Stagger Lee is the hero.

This is one of the fascinating sociological quirks of “Stagger Lee”. Many of the early versions by black artists (Mississippi John Hurt for example) paint Stagger in a sympathetic role. In the versions where he hangs at the end, Hurt’s lyric “They was all glad to see him die” was altered to “We was all glad to see him die” when Woody Guthrie recorded it.

It’s all perspective. And ultimately, it’s just a great song.

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