Stagger Lee

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"Stack O' Lee Blues"
Single by Waring's Pennsylvanians
B-side"Stavin' Change"[1]
Released1923 (1923)
RecordedCamden, New Jersey, April 18, 1923
Songwriter(s)Ray Lopez (credited on single)

"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 first recorded in 1923, by Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians. A version by Lloyd Price reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959.


The historical Stagger Lee was Lee Shelton, a black 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: 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.[2] Shelton was well known locally as one of the Macks, a group of pimps who demanded attention through their flashy clothing and appearance.[3] In addition to these activities, he was the captain of a black Four Hundred Club, a social club with a dubious reputation.[4]

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.[5] Subsequently, Shelton shot Lyons, recovered his hat, and left.[6] Lyons died of his injuries, and Shelton was charged, tried, and convicted of the murder in 1897. He was paroled in 1909, but returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery. He died in incarceration in 1912.[7]

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.[8] 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".[9]

Early versions[edit]

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".[10] 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,[11] and in 1911, two versions were published in the Journal of American Folklore by the sociologist and historian Howard W. Odum.[12]

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.[13] 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 version was recorded by Frank Hutchison on January 28, 1927 in New York, and is included in Harry Smith's famous Anthology of American Folk Music (Song 19 of 84).[10]

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.[14] By the time W.C. Handy wrote that explanation in 1926, "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 by many as definitive.[10] 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).[10]

Post-war versions[edit]

"Stagger Lee"
Single by Lloyd Price
B-side"You Need Love"
ReleasedNovember 1958 (1958-11)
RecordedNew York City, September 11, 1958
GenrePop, R&B
Songwriter(s)Lloyd Price, Harold Logan (credited on single)
Producer(s)Don Costa
Lloyd Price singles chronology
"No Limit to Love"
"Stagger Lee"
"Where Were You (On Our Wedding Day)?"

In 1950, a version of "Stack-a-Lee" by New Orleans pianist Archibald reached number 10 on the Billboard R&B chart.[15] Lloyd Price recorded the song as "Stagger Lee" in 1958, and it rose to the top of both the R&B and US pop charts in early 1959.[15] His version was ranked number 456 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, and also reached number 7 on the UK singles chart. Price also recorded a toned-down version of the song that changed the shooting to an argument between two friends for his appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.[10]

The song was covered by Pat Boone, and other versions were recorded in the 1960s by Ike and Tina Turner, The Righteous Brothers, James Brown, Wilson Pickett (whose version made number 22 on the US pop chart), Johnny and the Hurricanes (whose instrumental is called "High Voltage"), Dave Van Ronk on his 1962 album Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, Tom Rush on his 1963 album, "Blues, Songs And Ballads", Doc Watson on his 1967 album Ballads From Deep Gap, and by Taj Mahal on the 1969 album Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home. Tommy Roe's 1971 version of the song went to number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 17 on the Canadian Singles Chart.

Pacific, Gas & Electric included the song under the name "Staggolee" on their 1970 album Are You Ready?;[16] while The Youngbloods released a version of the song on their 1971 album, Good and Dusty.[17] In 1972 Dr. John included a version on his album Dr. John's Gumbo. The Grateful Dead frequently played and eventually 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.[18] 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.[19] Christian Rock musician Larry Norman wrote new lyrics using a bluesy version of the tune called Nightmare #97 about a religious experience where the narrator is caught up to heaven. It was recorded in 1977 but not published until 1981 in the album Something New Under the Son. A version by the Fabulous Thunderbirds can be found on the Porky's Revenge soundtrack (1985). Bob Dylan included a version of "Stack A Lee" on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong. An extended version appears on Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes 1981 live album Reach Up And Touch The Sky. Huey Lewis and the News recorded "Stagger Lee" on their 1994 album of R&B covers, Four Chords And Several Years Ago. Neil Sedaka recorded the song in 1983 for his album Come See About Me.

In 1996, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds included a song called "Stagger Lee" on their album "Murder Ballads". Not a cover version of the classic song, but instead an alternative and darker version of the tale itself, the references are evident: set in 1932, a still alive Stagger Lee now owns a Colt .45 (instead of the 'original' .44) and carries a deck of cards; he also still has his Stetson hat, which is now, of course, "old". Also Stagger Lee still has problems in bars, and ends up shooting not only a bartender, but also another rival also called Billy. This version retakes a street "toast poem" on Stagolee.[20]

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. The version 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. In his version, Stagger Lee killed a man named Louis Collins, and 'Hangin' Billy Lyons was the judge who sentenced Stagger to hang.

Chart performance[edit]

Lloyd Price version[edit]

All-time charts[edit]

Chart (1958-2018) Position
US Billboard Hot 100[21] 260

See also[edit]


  1. ^ B-side artist listed as "the Virginians"
  2. ^ Brown, Cecil (2004). Stagolee Shot Billy. Boston: Harvard University Press. pp. 43–45. ISBN 9780674028906.
  3. ^ Brown, Cecil (2004). Stagolee Shot Billy. Boston: Harvard University Press. p. 23. ISBN 0674028902.
  4. ^ Brown, Cecil (2004). Stagolee Shot Billy. Boston: Harvard University Press. p. 43. ISBN 9780674028906. Brown summarizes what little is known about this club as follows: "The Four Hundred Club was a 'social club,' but such clubs always had a moral front. (...) The Four Hundred Club may have been a type of black-and-tan club, catering to an interracial clientele, and as such would have been under pressure from reform policies." Brown cites a contemporary source from the newspaper St.Louis Star-Sayings, in which a member of the club states, "Mr. [Stack] Lee was our captain."
  5. ^ Brown, Cecil (2004). Stagolee Shot Billy. Boston: Harvard University Press. p. 23. ISBN 9780674028906. Based on the statements of witnesses Cecil Brown retells the incident as follows: "Then Lyons grabbed Shelton's Stetson. When Shelton demanded it back, Lyons said no."
  6. ^ Brown, Cecil (2004). Stagolee Shot Billy. Boston: Harvard University Press. pp. 21–29. ISBN 0674028902.
  7. ^ Brown, Cecil (2004). Stagolee Shot Billy. Boston: Harvard University Press. pp. 34–36. ISBN 0674028902.
  8. ^ Brown, Cecil (2004). Stagolee Shot Billy. Harvard University Press. p. 102. ISBN 0674028902.
  9. ^ Buehler, Richard E. (1967). "Stacker Lee: A partial investigation into the historicity of a Negro murder ballad". Keystone Folklore Quarterly. 12: 187 and note. Retrieved March 20, 2013.
  10. ^ a b c d e "History". Retrieved 17 February 2013.
  11. ^ Marshall, Matt (May 9, 2011). "A Brief History of Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons". American Blues Scene. Archived from the original on 22 February 2014. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  12. ^ Buehler, Richard E. (1967). "Stacker Lee: A partial investigation into the historicity of a Negro murder ballad". Keystone Folklore Quarterly. 12: 187–191. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  13. ^ "Herb Wiedoeft's Cinderella Roof Orchestra". Red Hot Jazz. Archived from the original on 2011-01-05. Retrieved 2010-10-13.
  14. ^ Handy, W.C. Handy (1926). Blues, an Anthology.
  15. ^ a b Whitburn, Joel (1996). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942-1995. Record Research. p. 12.
  16. ^ Are You Ready? in Discogs Retrieved 21 Oct 2019
  17. ^ The Youngbloods, Good and Dusty Retrieved June 12, 2015
  18. ^ "The Annotated "Stagger Lee"". Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  19. ^ "The Clash". Artist History. Retrieved 2007-11-20.(Appears to be dead link.)
  20. ^ "Largehearted Boy: Book Notes - Derek McCulloch ("Stagger Lee")". Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  21. ^ "Billboard Hot 100 60th Anniversary Interactive Chart". Billboard. Retrieved 10 December 2018.

External links[edit]