Over the course of even a few years, the details of a crime can surely change and might even be forgotten. The 1895 murder case of a 25 year old levee hand named William Lyons who was shot to death by carriage driver, Lee Sheldon, is not one that will be forgotten, although the details of the crime have been frequently changed.
The original crime occurred at 10 o’clock at night in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets when an argument broke out between William ‘Billy’ Lyons and ‘Stag’ Lee Sheldon. The events leading up to the crime were reported in the St. Louis Missouri Globe-Democrat. The article states that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s Stetson hat off his head. When William Lyons refused to return the hat, Lee Sheldon shot him in the stomach, took his hat and left.
As the incident made its way into folk music, many variations of the name Stag Lee were born, including Stag-O-Lee, Stagger Lee or Stack-o-Lee. The tune became well known throughout the South.
In most versions of Stagger Lee, the dispute involves gambling and the Stetson hat.
Folklorist, John Lomax, is generally credited with publishing the first version of the song in 1910. Blues singer and guitarist, ‘Mississippi’ John Hurt recorded the song in 1928 under the title Stack O’Lee Blues. Stack O’Lee is hanged in Hurt’s version. This title may possibly have been used because W. C. Handy wrote an explanation of the nickname Stack O’Lee in the 1920s, indicating that this nickname was probably used for tall men and was a comparison to the tall smoke-stack of the large steamboat Robert E. Lee.
It was Lloyd Price’s 1959 recording called Stagger Lee that brought the song into popular culture. Lloyd Price’s release was actually the B side of his song, You Need Love. When disc jockeys began to play Stagger Lee, it became wildly popular, selling almost 200,000 copies a day, and shot to No. 1 on the pop charts on February 9, 1959, staying there for four weeks. Lloyd Price did appear on American Bandstand to sing the song, but Dick Clark was unhappy with the violence and asked Lloyd to cut a version leaving out the murder. That is how the song earned the distinction of being the first No. 1 song that was censored. In the revised version, Stagger Lee and Billy argued over a girl and become friends at the end. Whichever version you may have listened to, Stagger Lee was now rocking and was a dance song!
Wilson Pickett covered the song in 1967 with a little bit of twist. Yes, you will see the same lyrics as Lloyd Price’s original version all over the internet for Pickett’s Stag-O-Lee, but you don’t believe everything you read, do you? In Wilson’s version, Billy won all Stag’s money and his brand new Cadillac! In addition to a mean horn section, Wilson continues on to add a moral at the end of the song with the lines:
Billy’s gone on home, but one thing about it
It’ll teach the rest of you gamblers a lesson
I love to hear the same song by different artists. Often, like mother’s cooking, the song we hear and love first will always be our favorite. Once in a while, however, and especially if we keep an open mind, we may find a version of a song we like better than what is ‘the original’ in our hearts.
There certainly is a wide variety to pick from for Stagger Lee. Some other well-known artists who have covered it include Fats Domino, Pat Boone, Bob Dylan, Johnny Rivers, The Grateful Dead, Woody Guthrie, Bill Haley & His Comets, Ike and Tina Turner, The Isley Brothers, and Neil Diamond, to name but a few. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds also released an extremely profane version on their Murder Ballads CD, which undoubtedly would have given the censors of the 1950s a heart attack.
If you are interested in the real people behind the song, and times in which they lived, Cecil Brown’s book, Stagolee Shot Billy (published by Harvard University Press) delves deeper into the real lives of Lee Sheldon and William Lyons. This book even contains copies of their death certificates!
In May 2006, Image Comics published Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix, an illustrated exploration of the story from many angles.