It is not unusual for blues songs dating back to the 1920s or before to be re-recorded in different genres. Along the way, much of the blues feeling and intent of the original song is lost or misinterpreted. One of the greatest examples of this process is “Stagger Lee,” a blues song first published in 1911, and then recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. In 1925, “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey recorded the second version of the song as “Stack O’Lee Blues.” The song had actually been doing the rounds of the South, travelling up and down the Mississippi River, since the turn of the century, claims the website udiscovermusic.com.
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: 1) he was given the nickname because he “went stag,” meaning he was without friends; 2) he took the nickname from a well-known riverboat captain called Stack Lee; or, 3) 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.
“Shelton 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 the captain of a black Four Hundred Club, a social club with a dubious reputation,” says Wikipedia.
“Stagger Lee” is all about an incident that happened on Christmas night in 1895 while 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. After a lot of drinking and gambling, Lyons grabbed Shelton’s Stetson hat, a definite fighting matter. Subsequently, Shelton shot Lyons in the stomach, recovered his hat, and left. Lyons died shortly afterward and Shelton was convicted of the murder in 1897. Shelton was paroled in 1909, but soon got into trouble again and was returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery; he died in there in 1912.
A string of different “Stagger Lee” versions have been recorded by Furry Lewis (1927), Long Clive Reed (1927), Frank Hutchison (1927), Woody Guthrie (1956), Lonnie Donegan (1956), Taj Mahal (1969) and Bob Dylan (1993). Cab Calloway and His Orchestra recorded a song entitled ‘Stack O Lee Blues’, but his version had nothing lyrically to do with the original, claims Richard Havers in udiscovermusic.com. Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording is considered the definitive version by blues scholars. Some of his lyrics go like this:
“Police officer, how can it be?
You can ‘rest everybody but cruel Stack O’ Lee
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
Billy de Lyon told Stack O’ Lee, ‘Please don’t take my life,
I got two little babies, and a darlin’ lovin’ wife’
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee
‘What I care about you little babies, your darlin’ lovin’ wife?
You done stole my Stetson
Hat, I’m bound to take your life.”
Some sources say that recordings of this song number in the hundreds and that the Stagger Lee tale has been told and retold in venues other than just music. According to staggerlee.com, over 400 different artists have recorded this song since the first recording in 1923. Margaret Walker and James Baldwin wrote poems from the song. It’s been refashioned as a musical, two novels, a short story, an award-winning graphic novel, Ph.D. dissertations, and a pornographic feature film. “Stagger Lee” has lived as Ragtime, a Broadway showtune, Blues, Jazz, Honky Tonk, Country, ‘50s Rock and Roll, Ska, Folk, Surf, ‘70s punk, Heavy Metal, ‘90s punk, Rap. Even Hawaiian. The song’s character lives large in Gangsta Rap. Listen to it and we hear the evolution of modern music.
Probably the most familiar version of “Stagger Lee” (at least to baby boomers) was recorded in 1958 by R&B vocalist Lloyd Price. His version of the song reached number one on the Billboard list and stayed there for four weeks in 1959. Some of his lyrics are as follows:
“Stagger Lee went to the barroom
And he stood across the barroom door
He said, nobody move and he pulled his
Stagger Lee, (oh Stagger Lee) cried Billy (oh Stagger Lee)
Oh, please (oh Stagger Lee) don’t take my life (oh Stagger Lee)
I’ve got three little (oh Stagger Lee) children and a very (oh Stagger Lee)
Sickly wife (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)
Stagger Lee (oh Stagger Lee) shot Billy (oh Stagger Lee)
Oh, he shot (oh Stagger Lee) that poor boy so bad (oh Stagger Lee)
‘Till the bullet (oh Stagger Lee) came through Billy (oh Stagger Lee)and it broke the bar (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)
Tender’s glass (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee) (oh Stagger Lee)”
Lloyd Price sings “Stagger Lee”