Paul Slade traces the (factual and performance) history of America’s favorite revenge ballad, “Stagger Lee,” and gleefully explains that “each successive generation darkens the song and casts aside another scrap of what pity [for the shooting victim, Billy] remains.”
“SHOT IN CURTIS’S PLACE
“William Lyons, 25, coloured, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan streets, by Lee Sheldon, also coloured.
“Both parties, it seems, had been drinking, and were feeling in exuberant spirits. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head.
“The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon drew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen [...] When his victim fell to the floor, Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away.”
– St Louis Globe-Democrat, December 26, 1895.
There were five other murders that Christmas night in St Louis, but this was the one that counted. Work songs, field chants and folktales describing how Lee ‘Stack Lee’ Shelton killed Billy Lyons started to spring up almost immediately. The earliest written lyrics we have date back to 1903, and the first discs to 1923. There have been well over 200 versions of Stack’s story released on record since then, giving him a list of biographers which includes some of the biggest names in popular music. Duke Ellington, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and James Brown have all recorded the song at one time or another, as have Wilson Pickett, The Clash, Bob Dylan, Dr John and Nick Cave. Even Elvis Presley had a stab at it in a 1970 rehearsal session which later surfaced as a bootleg CD.
Lloyd Price landmark 1957 version, “a runaway train of a record, fueled by blaring horns and the backing singers’ constant roars of encouragement.” Go, Stagger Lee!