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, titled "Stack O' Lee Blues". A version by Lloyd Price reached number one 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: he was given the nickname because he "went stag" (attended social events unaccompanied by a person of the opposite sex); 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 attracted attention through their flashy clothing and appearance.[3] In addition to those 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 incarcerated 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", while "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 forced 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 "Stag O'Lee Blues", a different song based on the melody and words of "Frankie and Johnnie", 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, the song was commonly known as "Stack O'Lee". W.C. Handy wrote that it probably was a nickname for a tall person, comparing him to the tall smokestack of the famous 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 pop singers of the day, such 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 recorded by Duke Ellington (1927), Cab Calloway (1931), Woody Guthrie (1941),[10] and Sidney Bechet (1945).[15]

Lloyd Price R&B version[edit]

"Stagger Lee"
Single by Lloyd Price
B-side"You Need Love"
ReleasedNovember 1958 (1958-11)
RecordedNew York City, September 11, 1958
GenreNew Orleans R&B[16]
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)?"

Lloyd Price recorded an R&B rendition of 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.[17] Although his version uses similar lyrics to previous versions of the song, his rendition features a different melody and has no lyrical refrain, making it shorter than previous recordings of the song. Price's version of the song 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 lyrically 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]

Chart performance[edit]

Lloyd Price version[edit]

Chart (1959) Peak
UK Singles (The Official Charts Company)[18] 7
US Billboard Hot 100 1
US Hot R&B Sides (Billboard)[19] 1

All-time charts[edit]

Chart (1958-2018) Position
US Billboard Hot 100[20] 260

Other post-war versions[edit]

Popular culture[edit]

  • The song is sung by an African-American prisoner in Jack Black's autobiography You Can't Win.[25]
  • In 1949 an episode of the radio anthology series program Destination Freedom, written by Richard Durham, retold the "Tales of Stackalee".[26]
  • The song "Wrong 'Em Boyo" by the Jamaican rocksteady group the Rulers begins with a quotation from "Stagger Lee": "Stagger Lee met Billy and they got down to gambling / Stagger Lee throwed seven, Billy said that he throwed eight." The song was notably covered by the Clash on their 1979 album London Calling with an additional lyric to finish the verse: "So Billy said, 'Hey Stagger! I'm gonna make my big attack / I'm gonna have to leave my knife in your back.'"
  • Stagger Lee was the masked persona of wrestler Junkyard Dog, who donned the name and mask in 1982 due to an angle where he was forced to leave his wrestling territory for 90 days.
  • 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.
  • Blues musician Keb' Mo' performs his version in a scene from the 2007 film Honeydripper.
  • In Percival Everett's 2001 novel Erasure and its 2023 film adaptation American Fiction, black literature professor Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, becomes frustrated with the success of books that exploit and sensationalize Black American poverty, violence, and crime, and writes a satire of these books, first titled My Pafology and then retitled Fuck, under the pseudonym "Stagg R. Leigh", and must then deal with the effects of his book being taken seriously by everyone and becoming wildly successful.
  • In John Hornor Jacobs' 2019 horror novella My Heart Struck Sorrow, a 1930s ethnomusicologist travels the South recording variants of "Stagger Lee," some of them diabolical.
  • Killer Mike spoke about him on Hell of a Week with Charlamagne tha God on Comedy Central on October 8, 2022.
  • "Stagger Lee" sung by Lloyd Price was featured in the film Shag: The Movie in 1989. It was also featured on its soundtrack.

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 978-0674028906.
  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 978-0674028906. Brown summarizes what little is known about the 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 978-0674028906. 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. ^ "1945–1946 – Sidney Bechet | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic.
  16. ^ Breihan, Tom (January 29, 2018). "The Number Ones: Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee"". Stereogum. Retrieved June 3, 2023. And in 1959, the New Orleans R&B singer and former Army serviceman Lloyd Price took one of those versions to #1....Instead, it's a total blast of a song, a spirited New Orleans rumble...
  17. ^ a b Whitburn, Joel (1996). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942–1995. Record Research. p. 12.
  18. ^ "". Official Charts. Retrieved November 9, 2021.
  19. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2004). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942–2004. Record Research. p. 470.
  20. ^ "Billboard Hot 100 60th Anniversary Interactive Chart". Billboard. Retrieved 10 December 2018.
  21. ^ Are You Ready? in Discogs Retrieved 21 Oct 2019
  22. ^ The Youngbloods, Good and Dusty Retrieved June 12, 2015
  23. ^ "The Annotated "Stagger Lee"". Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  24. ^ "Largehearted Boy: Book Notes – Derek McCulloch ("Stagger Lee")". Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  25. ^ Black, Jack (2021). You Can't Win. Vancouver, BC: Must Have Books. ISBN 978-1-77323-797-8. OCLC 1301911524.
  26. ^ MacDonald, J. Fred, ed. (1989). Richard Durham's Destination Freedom. New York: Praeger. p. x. ISBN 0275931382. Also see OCLC 1323028307, 44432637 for cassette and audio CD availability of the episode

External links[edit]