Friday, February 09, 2007

18 Versions of STAGGER LEE

They all did it: Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Wilson Pickett, Pa Boone, Theodis Ealey, Sleepy LaBeef, Nick Cave, Downchild Blues Band, Grateful Dead, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Wyman, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt, Ma Rainey, Elvis Presley, PJ Proby, and John Fogerty. They weren't the only ones, either.
Like Mack the Knife, Stagger Lee was not someone to be admired, yet the song about him is so cool people can't help boppin' and smilin' when they hear it.
Yes, there was a Stagger Lee.
Was there a shooting in a bar? And did it involve a Stetson hat?
Well...the famous song is rooted in truth.

The story was reported in an 1895 issue of the St. Louis Globe Democrat (what, you were expecting me to quote some crap from allmusic.com? Not on THIS blog). Here's how they reported it:
"William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, 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, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. 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 withdrew 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. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as 'Stag' Lee"
Yes, it's all right there. Even the nickname, "Stag" Lee.
Billy Lyons died from the gunshot wound. Stag's first trial was rousing and raucous, and featured the antics of Mr. Dryden, Stag's opium-addicted lawyer. The trial ended with a hung jury, but the second time, sans the colorful Mr. Dryden, turned out badly for 'Stag" Lee, and his sentence was 25 years. He got out early, went back to crime, pistol-whipped a thug, and was returned to state prison where he died in 1912, aged 46.
Scholars have since discovered that Stagger Lee Sheldon was actually Lee SHELTON, probably a pimp more than a gambler, who was born in Texas, on March 16, 1865. His posse was called The Stags. An early folk song about him started like this:
"Staggerlee was a good man
Everybody he did love
The pimps and whores all swore by Stag -
By the everlasting stars above..."
In 1911 Guy B Johnson published a version of the song in the Journal of American Folklore. Frank Hutchison recorded a version in 1927 and Mississippi John Hurt did one in 1928. Along the way, others made free and easy adaptations, some with fresh lyrics or a different melody.
The song kicked around until Archibald (stage name for Leon T. Gross) recorded a version in 1950. The record impressed a Korean soldier by the name of Lloyd Price. He decided to use the song in his act: "While entertaining the troops, I had put together a little play based on it. I'd have soldiers acting out the story while I sang it.".
Price recorded his version of "Stagger Lee" on the B-side of a single called "You Need Love," and disk jockeys literally flipped for it...turning the B side into a hit. It was Price who came up with the enthusiastic "Go Stagger Lee" chorus chant, and that cute doo-wop intro, setting the scene with a yellow moon and leaves tumbling down. He placed the gambling outside "in the dark," then brought the argument indoors to the bar.
When suits felt the song was too violent for "American Bandstand," Price recorded a sanitized new version with a happy ending. That version is, fortunately, pretty obscure now. Not so obscure is the home of Stag Lee Shelton (911 North 12th Street in St. Louis) or the grave of Billy Lyons at St. Peter's Cemetery. They are tourist attractions.
Lloyd Price's version presents Stagger Lee as a gambler who is pissed off at losing all his money to his cheating friend Billy ("Stagger Lee threw seven, Billy swore that he threw eight"). Other versions have made him more heroic. During the Black Panther era of the late 60's, Bobby Seale declared, "Stagolee was a bad nigger off the block and didn't take shit from nobody. Malcolm X at one time was an illegitimate hustler...So symbolically, at one time he was Stagolee...To me, Stagolee was the true grassroots."
Nick Cave's recent recording of the tale is ultra-violent and homo-erotic. He says: "The final act of brutality, where the great Stagger Lee blows the head off Billy . . . while he is committing fellatio [was] especially attractive...There's a verse to our version that goes, 'I'm the kind of cocksucker that would crawl over 50 good pussies to get to one fat boy's asshole,' which I heard on an amazing talking blues song by a guy who, in the song, introduces himself as Two-time Slim. I've always thought that was a groovy line so I just threw it in for good measure...I like the way the simple, almost naive traditional murder ballad has gradually become a vehicle that can happily accommodate the most twisted acts of deranged machismo. Just like Stag Lee himself, there seems to be no limits to how evil this song can become."
Nice guys don't get 18 versions of a song about 'em, because nice guys generally aren't prone to killing people over a hat. That's the stuff of legend, and a touch of wistful admiration. There's allure to being a "bad man," and Stag was one bad, bad cat. Hell, he not only put a hole in Billy, it went through and broke the bartender's glass! Hmm. Single bullet theory...was Stagger Lee really the lone gunman? How old IS Phil Spector??
The night was clear, and the moon was yellow. And the leaves came tumblin' down!

17 comments:

Al Doolin said...

And here are some more:

http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2007/01/book_notes_dere.html

Elaine said...

Ah, my favorite song from the (and still in process) 'tradition.' I especially like the version in Lomax' 'Folksongs of North America.'

Not long ago I read a book length study entitled 'Stagolee Shot Billy,' by Cecil Brown. A little on the academic side, but highly recommended and most enjoyable.

Take care!

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vilstef said...

Lloyd Price brought poetry to this old murder ballad. His opening is almost a haiku. (Haiku purists would say real haikus are in Japanese.)

Ill Folks said...

Nice. It IS almost a haiku. It's also a deceptively calm opening to a rockin' murder ballad.