"Stagger Lee", also known as "Stagolee" and other variants, is a popular American folk song about the murder of Billy Lyons by "Stag" Lee Shelton in St. Louis, Missouri at Christmas, 1895. The song was first published in 1911, and was first recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians. A version by Lloyd Price reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959.
The historical "Stagger Lee" was Lee Shelton, an African-American pimp living in St. Louis, Missouri in the late 19th century. He was nicknamed "Stag Lee" or "Stack Lee", with a variety of explanations being given for the moniker: he was given the nickname because he 'went "stag"', meaning he was without friends; he took the nickname from a well-known riverboat captain called "Stack Lee"; or, according to John and Alan Lomax, he took the name from a riverboat owned by the Lee family of Memphis called the Stack Lee, which was known for its on-board prostitution. He was well known locally as one of the "Macks", a group of pimps who demanded attention through their flashy clothing and appearance. In addition to these activities, he was evidently politically active as the captain of a black "Four Hundred Club", a political and social club with a dubious reputation.
On Christmas night in 1895, Shelton and his acquaintance William "Billy" Lyons were drinking in the Bill Curtis Saloon. Lyons was also a member of St. Louis' underworld, and may have been a political and business rival to Shelton. Eventually, the two men got into a dispute, during which Lyons took Shelton's Stetson hat. Subsequently, Shelton shot Lyons, recovered his hat, and left. Lyons died of his injuries, and Shelton was charged, tried and convicted of the murder in 1897. He was pardoned in 1909, but returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery, and died in incarceration in 1912.
The crime quickly entered into American folklore and became the subject of song as well as folktales and toasts. The song's title comes from Shelton's nickname, "Stag Lee" or "Stack Lee". The name was quickly corrupted in the folk tradition; early versions were called "Stack-a-Lee" and "Stacker Lee"; "Stagolee" and "Stagger Lee" also became common. Other recorded variants include "Stackerlee", "Stack O'Lee", "Stackolee", "Stackalee", "Stagerlee", and "Stagalee".
A song called "Stack-a-Lee" was first mentioned in 1897, in the Kansas City Leavenworth Herald, as being performed by "Prof. Charlie Lee, the piano thumper." The earliest versions were likely field hollers and other work songs performed by African-American laborers, and were well known along the lower Mississippi River by 1910. That year, musicologist John Lomax received a partial transcription of the song, and in 1911 two versions were published in the Journal of American Folklore by the sociologist and historian Howard W. Odum.
The song was first recorded by Waring's Pennsylvanians in 1923, and became a hit. Another version was recorded later that year by Frank Westphal & His Regal Novelty Orchestra, and Herb Wiedoeft and his band recorded the song in 1924. Also in 1924, the first version with lyrics was recorded, as "Skeeg-a-Lee Blues", by Lovie Austin. Ma Rainey recorded the song the following year, with Louis Armstrong on cornet, and a notable version was recorded by Frank Hutchison in 1927.
Before World War II, it was commonly known as "Stack O'Lee". W.C. Handy wrote that this probably was a nickname for a tall person, comparing him to the tall smokestack of the large steamboat Robert E. Lee. By the time W.C. Handy wrote that 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.
The version by Mississippi John Hurt, recorded in 1928, is regarded as definitive. In his version, 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". Other notable pre-war versions were by Duke Ellington (1927), Cab Calloway (1931), and Woody Guthrie (1941).
In 1950, a version by New Orleans pianist Archibald reached #10 on the Billboard R&B chart.Lloyd Price recorded the song in 1958, and it rose to the top of both the R&B and US pop charts in early 1959. His version was ranked #456 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, and also reached #7 on the UK singles chart. Price also recorded a toned-down version of the song for his appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.
The song was covered by Pat Boone, and other versions were recorded in the 1960s by Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett (whose version made #22 on the US pop chart). Tommy Roe's 1971 version of the song went to #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #17 on the Canadian Singles Chart. The Grateful Dead recorded a version of the tale which focuses on the fictionalized hours after the death of "Billy DeLyon", 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.The Clash's 1979 album London Calling includes a cover of the song "Wrong 'Em Boyo" by the Jamaican rocksteady group The Rulers, in which Stagger Lee is explicitly the hero and Billy the villain. A version by The Fabulous Thunderbirds can be found on the Porky's Revenge soundtrack (1985). Johnny Otis's band Snatch and the Poontangs performed a version in which the violence is matched by the sex.
Prince Buster & The Trojans recorded a ska/reggae version called "Stack-A-Lee" in 1990. It can be found on the Trojan boxed set Beginner's Guide To Ska. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds presented a version of the song on their 1996 album Murder Ballads. This version retakes a street "toast poem" on Stagolee. Toasts are pre-rap poems and stories especially popular among those in "the life" and among prisoners. The song contains much swearing and tells the story from a neutral perspective; Stagger Lee refers to himself as "The Bad Motherfucker." The song also appears to set the story in the 1930s, evident in the opening line "It was back in '32 when times were hard." Australian band Magic Dirt also covered the song in the style of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds rendition in 2006.
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 the song 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. Blues musician Keb' Mo' performs his version in a scene from the 2007 film Honeydripper. Modern Life Is War recorded a hardcore punk version for their 2007 album Midnight In America. Josh Ritter recorded a version of the tale titled "Folk Bloodbath" on the album So Runs the World Away but in his version Stagger Lee killed a man named Louis Collins, and 'Hangin' Billy Lyons was the judge who sentenced Stagger to hang.
Bill Haley & His Comets,
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds,
The Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group,
Champion Jack Dupree,
The Isley Brothers,
Huey Lewis and the News,
Jerry Lee Lewis,
Modern Life is War,
Sam the Sham,
Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes,
Dave Van Ronk,
The Felice Brothers