All About that Bad Man Stagger Lee

THEFT OF STETSON HAT CAUSES DEADLY DISPUTE, VICTIM IDENTIFIES SELF AS FAMILY MAN ~ Liner note for Frank Hutchinson’s Stackalee from The Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by
Harry Smith

It’s 1895, Christmas night. You’re wandering confused down a street you’ve never seen before, but somehow you know the day, the year.

The city. You’re in St. Louis.

How? Are you dreaming? Maybe you are, because you keep on sighting images and scenes that make no sense, that shouldn’t be in this world. You see a man by an open grave pulling the rings from a dead woman’s fingers. A heavyset speaker on a podium is declaiming his views on tariff laws when an assassin dashes up and shoots him in the belly.

There’s a track parallel to the street, and a freight train suddenly appears, moving much too fast, the half-seen engineer pulling down the whistle cord in a long, piercing scream. It disappears back into the night. A few seconds later the street is shrouded in fog, and you glimpse what looks like the prow of an enormous ship passing by, even though there isn’t any body of water that could float it within a thousand miles. The fog conceals the ship again before you can see any more than the last few letters of its name -”ANTIC.”

You step out of the street, out of the madness, into the welcome lights of a bar, although it has the ominous name of The Bucket of Blood. But by this time you don’t care, you just want a drink, company, voices, music.

There’s a piano with a player banging out fast ragtime. The room is crowded, loud, filled with smoke. You push your way to the bar, order a beer, and turn as you hear voices raised, chairs pushed away, the crowd scattering to open a space for two men. One is holding a Stetson hat away from another, larger man.

“Give me back my damn hat!” he shouts.

“You son of a bitch, I’m going to make you kill me,” the smaller one replies, reaching into his jacket. And the tall man dips into his coat too, bringing out a pistol, and shoots four times.

“I told you to give me my hat,” Lee Shelton says to the lifeless body as he reaches down to retrieve his Stetson.

Greil Marcus calls it the Old, Weird America. Ted Anthony calls it the Village. I think of it as an interzone, a place where reality and legend collide, a place where a pretty young woman named Polly, the 25th President of the United States, and train engineer John Luther Jones all live out their days and meet their deaths, and the Old 97 and the Unsinkable Ship are the usual mode of transportation.

It’s a place where a briar and a rose grow together in a graveyard, and eventually entwine into a lover’s knot. It’s where a boy and girl — neither much more than children — throw a bundle from a bridge each day. The boy returns later in the night and will follow it into the dark waters.

The interzone. It’s where all the songs start.

That Bad Man

Billy DeLyon told Stagolee, “Please don’t take my life
I got two little babes and a darling, loving wife”
That bad man, oh cruel Stagolee
“What’d I care about your two little babes and darling, loving wife?
You done stole my Stetson hat, I’m bound to take your life.”
That bad man, oh cruel Stagolee
— Stagolee by Mississippi John Hurt

According to newspaper reports, Lee Shelton, both known as “Stag” and “Stack” Lee, walked into the Bill Curtis Saloon, located in the epicenter of what was then St. Louis’s thriving vice district. The saloon was a few blocks away from a notorious bordello called The Bucket of Blood.

Lee Shelton was a pimp, and reportedly something of a loner, either of which may have earned him the “Stag” nickname. But there’s some evidence that he called himself “Stack” after the riverboat Stack Lee, part of the Lee Line of riverboats, known as Cecil Brown relates in Stagolee Shot Billy, “…for speed, sumptuous cabins, elaborate cuisine — and prostitution.”

At the bar, Shelton asked “Who’s treating?” Someone pointed to Billy Lyons. Shelton sat at his table, where, according to several witnesses, they drank companionably until the talk turned to politics. They started throwing blows at each other’s hats, Shelton eventually breaking the brim of Lyon’s derby.

In turn, Lyons grabbed Shelton’s Stetson, saying he wouldn’t return it until he was paid for his damaged hat.

Shelton pulled a .44 Smith & Wesson revolver, shot Lyons, took the Stetson from his hand, and walked out of the bar back to his boarding house. He was arrested the next morning.

Lloyd Price, Stagger Lee, and Dick Clark

In 19 and 59, Stagger Lee became a number one hit for Lloyd Price, selling million of copies and topping both the pop and R&B charts for a full month. At one point the single sold over 200,000 copies in one day.

Lloyd Price recorded his first Stagger Lee on September 11th, 19 and 58 as the B side of what he thought would be a hit single, You Need Love. But You Need Love flopped, while deejays thought Stagger Lee was a gas, especially with its novelty of having white backup singers behind a black lead.

Stagger Lee was on the charts by December 8th 19 and 58, and was heading nowhere but up. But Price had gone back into the studio four days earlier to record another version. Why? The story gets a little fuzzy at this point, but like Stagger Lee’s nemesis, Billy, there’s always one name associated with Lloyd Price’s alternate version of Stagger Lee — Dick Clark.

Dick Clark hosted “American Bandstand,” the most popular dance show of all time. The program provided audiences with performances by top and undiscovered music personalities, dancing contests, “Rate-A-Record,” “The Spotlight Dance” and “Top Ten.”(Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives)

Clark was the producer and host of American Bandstand, a music and dance television program that aired in various versions from 1952 to 1989 and featured teens dancing to Top 40 music introduced by Clark, at least one musical act lip-syncing their latest single, and ratings from the teens on the music; “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”

For a time, Bandstand was the #1 show on the ABC television, and by the end of the ’50s was the most popular daytime show on any network. Buddy Holly made his last television appearance on the show. Simon and Garfunkel made their television debut on Bandstand, as did Ike and Tina Turner, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Gladys Knight and the Pips. Chubby Checker debuted his version of “The Twist” on Bandstand and launched a national dance craze.

American Bandstand was the place to be if you wanted a hit, or wanted your hit to be even bigger, and managers clamored to get their acts on the show’s tiny stage.

The legend has it that Dick Clark felt Stagger Lee’s lyrics like “the bullet went through Billy and it broke the bartender’s glass” inappropriate for American Bandstand’s teen audience, and that he requested — or commanded — that Price castrate ol’ Stagger Lee if he wanted to appear on the show. But Price had already sung the original version at least twice earlier on both Bandstand and the late-night The Dick Clark Show with no objection from Clark.

It’s more likely that as the song’s popularity and airplay increased, Price and/or his label, and/or Dick Clark (and/or the ABC network, which is what Dick Clark maintained) may have become nervous about the complaints — many organized by the then very powerful “League of Decency” — that were pouring into radio stations about Stagger Lee’s content, and someone may have decided that Price’s next Bandstand appearance was the perfect time to roll out a more kid-friendly version.

What we do know is that Price rewrote and recorded the alternate version on December 4th, 1958, possibly with tongue firmly in cheek. In the new song Stagger Lee and Billy just exchange harsh words rather than gun play, Stagger retires with hurt feelings, and the two later make up. The song also includes the memorable closing lines…

“Stagger Lee and Billy never fuss or fight no more
Because he got back his girlfriend and Stagger Lee was no more sore.”

The reworked track, officially titled Stagger Lee (Bandstand Version), was reportedly intended for use only on the show, as Price gamely lip-synched the changed lyrics without breaking up. However, while never officially released, the revised song did somehow make its way out to radio stations, lending credence to the theory that it had always been intended as an alternative version for airplay. “So, you say you’re getting complaints about Stagger Lee? Play this version instead. Hell the kids don’t listen to the words anyway… just as long as its got a good beat, and you can dance to it.”

There are hundreds of different versions of the song relating the Stagger Lee story, variously called Stagger Lee, Stagolee, Stackerlee, Stack O’Lee, Stack-a-Lee and several other spellings, sung by musicians as far apart in style as W.C. Handy (Stack O’Lee) and The Clash (Wrong `Em Boyo).

Other artists who have recorded Stagger Lee include Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Duke Ellington, Woody Guthrie, Bill Haley & His Comets, Ike and Tina Turner, Fats Domino, Doc Watson, Dr. John, The Isley Brothers, and Huey Lewis And The News. One of the more notable alternate universe versions of the story was written by Robert Hunter for the Grateful Dead, where Billy’s wife, Delia, hunts down down Stagger Lee and has her revenge.

Cliff Edwards

And there are many strange versions of Stagger Lee, with one of the strangest from 19 and 28, recorded by Cliff Edwards, better known then as “Ukulele Ike,” and best remembered now as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. Whether you realized it or not, you’ve almost certainly heard Edwards at least once, singing When You Wish Upon a Star.

A forgotten son of Hannibal Missouri; the man who introduced the song Singing in the Rain on screen in 19 and 29; featured in more than 100 movies; star of his own radio show and frequent guest on television’s Mickey Mouse Club, Cliff Edwards would die alone and penniless in California in 1971. His unclaimed body was first donated to the UCLA hospital, but — in a semi-happy ending — was later purchased and buried by the Walt Disney Company.

The Stagger Lee story is also popular in the African-American community as a “toast.” Not the type the white community is familiar with hearing at weddings — but a ribald, recited story in verse, precursor to rap, and usually performed solely for family and friends at stag parties.

The speaker takes on the role of Stagger Lee, boasting about his badness and exploits with women, and the story always ends with Billy Lyons dead on the floor, victim of the speaker’s still-smoking .44.

Samuel L. Jackson performs a cross between song and toast in the movie Black Snake Moan, in a version of Staggolee based on R.L. Burnside’s original, who in turn took the lyrics from a toast a 20-year prisoner in upstate New York recited to an anthologist in 1967…

Back in ’32 when times were hard,
He had a Colt .45 and a deck of cards,
Rat-drawn shoes, an old Stetson hat,
A ’28 Ford and payments on that.

His woman threw him out in the ice and snow,
And told him not to come back there no more.

He hadn’t copped for a long, long time,
And he had to play with Jojo ’cause he didn’t have a dime.

He walked through rain and he walked through mud,
Till he came to a place called the Bucket of Blood.

He said, “Mr. Motherfucker, you must know who I am.”
Barkeep said, “No, and I don’t give a good goddamn.”

He said, “Well, bartender, it’s plain to see,
I’m that bad motherfucker named Stagger Lee.”

Barkeep said, “Yeah, I heard your name down the way,
But I kick motherfucking asses like you every day.”

Well, those were the last words the barkeep said,
’Cause Stag put four holes in his motherfucking head.

Recommended Reading:

Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown; the definitive book on the song and the real people behind the song. Highly recommended to all who love music history.

Stagger Lee written by Derek McCulloch and drawn by Shepherd Hendrix. Largely based on Brown’s non-fiction book, McCulloch and Hendrix blend fact and fiction to tell one and more possible stories about Lee Shelton. Also highly recommended, especially for those that still feel graphic novels are just “comic books.”

Corporate Storyteller. Tech enthusiast. Mini Cooper fanboy. One-time chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Husband of Peggy. Human of Lily Rose.

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