Transcript 161–Stagger Lee

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.


Hey, Cuz! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, and today we’re going to look at a song that took 48 years to reach the top.


Hi there! I’m Claude Call, and I’ve got a fun bit of trivia for ye today. I’d like you to tell me what band was thrown out of their own record release party? I’ll have the story behind that one later in the show.

Now, you may or may not know this about me by now, but I do have another podcast going on, where I take on more of a sidekick role. It’s called Words and Movies, which you can find in most podcatchers and at words and movies dot com, and in that podcast my partner Sean Gallagher and I take two seemingly different films and demonstrate how they actually have a lot in common. And in our episode numbered 47, we talk about the film Honeydripper, which has an undercurrent of today’s song, “Stagger Lee,” in it. So I thought I’d do a little tie-in between the two shows and do a whole episode about “Stagger Lee” here.

There are a lot of songs out there that tell stories about murders and such, but I think we know that they’re fictional, right? Bob Marley did not, in fact, shoot the sheriff. Marty Robbins didn’t die in a horseback chase down in El Paso. The Dixie Chicks—now just The Chicks—didn’t poison Earl’s black-eyed peas, and Stagger Lee? Oh, wait. That one actually happened.

To tell this story, we need to roll the clock all the way back to March 16, 1865, when a man named Lee Shelton was born. Shelton was an African-American who grew up to be a pimp in St. Louis, Missouri. Now, around the time of his adulthood, in the late 1800s, he took on the nickname Stag Lee or Stack Lee, depending on which explanation you like best. Some think it was Stag Lee because he typically “went stag,” meaning without friends. Others think he took the name from a riverboat captain named Stack Lee, but the most believable explanation, to me anyway, is that he got the name not from a riverboat captain but from the boat itself, which was called the Stack Lee because it was owned by the Lee family of Memphis, also because it was known for keeping prostitutes on board. And since Lee Shelton belonged to a group called The Macks, which was a flashy group of men who were also pimps, the pieces come together pretty well.

Shelton was also the captain of a black Four Hundred Club, which was a social club with a rather sketchy reputation.

Okay, now this part of the story might not make sense at first, but stay with me a minute. In the late 1800s, Ragtime music was on the rise, and St. Louis was the place to go for Ragtime music, in the same way that we think of, say, New Orleans for Jazz. And one of the big hits of that era was a song called “Bully of the Town.” Here’s a version of that song from 1926 by Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers.


Now: on Christmas night of 1895, Lee was in the Bill Curtis Saloon with his acquaintance William Lyons. What their specific relationship was isn’t clear. They both belonged to the St. Louis Underworld, but whether they were rivals of some kind is a lost detail. However, I’ll read to you the story that was printed in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat newspaper afterward:

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. (unquote)

Lyons later died in the hospital, and Lee was charged with his murder, and held for $4000 bond, Today that would be roughly $100,000. Now, the trial was in 1896, and St. Louis was a political hotbed, being the fourth largest city in the nation at the time. And as it happened, Shelton had been campaigning for the Democrats, and Lyons for the Republicans. And while St. Louis was generally a Republican city, the tide was changing around then.

In June 1896 Shelton’s bond was paid by a local pawnbroker, and the trial started in July. Shelton argues self-defense in the incident, and the trial ends in a hung jury.

By the next year, we see the first printed reference to the song, written as “Stack-O-Lee”. The song is essentially a variation on “Bully of the Town”. Only a few weeks later, Dryden’s attorney died after a drinking and morphine binge. So Dryden had a different lawyer in October when he was re-tried and convicted of the crime. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was paroled in 1909, but was imprisoned again two years later for assault and robbery. Unable to get parole this time around, he died in the hospital of the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City on March 11, 1912 from tuberculosis.

In the meantime, the song grew in popularity, largely as a field holler, or work song, along the lower Mississippi River area. In 1910 musicologist John Lomax got a hold of a partial transcription of the song, and in 1911, two versions were published by a historian named Howard Odum in the Journal of American Folklore.


The first known recording of the song was in 1923, by Waring’s Pennsylvanians, and it was known as the Stack O’ Lee Blues. It’s entirely instrumental, but if you listen closely you can hear that the melody is starting to morph from “Bully of the Town” into the tune we know today. A couple of other recordings were made within a few months, and all of them were instrumentals as well. Finally in 1924, Lovie Austin recorded the first version with the lyrics. This time it’s called “Steeg-O-Lee Blues,” with hyphens between each word in the first part.


This version is also notable for being the first black artist to record the song as well. Now, this next recording is from 1925 and it’s by Ma Rainey. The melody is clearly “Frankie and Johnny,” but the lyrics are a mashup of “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie and Johnny.” However, this track is also notable for its cornet player, a young guy by the name of Louis Armstrong:


OK, this one is interesting. This comes from 1927, and it’s performed by Long Cleeve Reed & Little Harvey Hull, known to most as the Down Home Boys. So far as anyone knows, there’s exactly one copy of this record still in existence, and the owner has said that he wants to be buried with it. And again you can hear the lyrics still have a little of the “Frankie and Johnny” in them, but it’s moving closer to the song and the story we all know:


Now, this next version is the one that appears to be the template for many of the versions that followed. It’s from 1928, and it’s by Mississippi  John Hurt. It doesn’t have all the verses that some of the others have, but Hurt did that on purpose, thinking they were unsuitable for recording. But it’s unmistakably the story of Lee Shelton and Billy Lyons and a dispute between the two.


Now, Woody Guthrie recorded two different versions of the song, and I’m not going to play either of them, but there’s an interesting variation I should note that’s going on here. In John Hurt’s version, he sings:

Standin’ on the gallows,
Head way up high
At 12 o’clock they killed him,
They was all glad to see him die

But in Woody Guthrie’s version, he sings:

Stackolee on his gallows,
His head way up high
12 o’clock we killed him,
We was all glad to see him die

In fact, in most versions of the song between the 1920s and the 1950s, that difference between “they was all glad to see him die” and “WE was all glad to see him die” tells you the race of the person singing the song. There are a few other black/white variations in the song, but this is the least subtle one of them.


So let’s jump to 1959 and the biggest version of them all. It was Lloyd Price who recorded the song in September of 1958. It was released in November and climbed to the Number One slot on the Billboard Hot 100 during the week of February 9, where it remained for four weeks, before finally being pushed out by Frankie Avalon’s “Venus.” It was also #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and it made it to #7 in the UK.

To be sure, Price changed the story again, to a couple of men who were shooting craps and got into a fight in an alley, probably in the autumn rather than at Christmas time, but between that swinging sound and the backup singers, Price’s version gave the song a whole new spin that clearly appealed to the public. And while Price’s version does include Lee shooting Billy, he also recorded a toned-down version for his lip-synch performance on American Bandstand, where they just get into a fight over a girl. Some radio stations also played that version if enough listeners complained.

Similarly, when the Isley Brothers recorded the song in 1963, with a young Jimi Hendrix playing guitar, when they performed it live on UK television,  Ron Isley created a bit of a scandal when he pulled out a gun and mimed the shooting.

As you’ve probably divined by now, there are literally hundreds of versions of this song out there, and some of them are more explicit than others. The version by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, which is more of a re-imagining of the song, is explicit in both its violence levels and its language. The Grateful Dead often added a verse where Billy’s wife tracks down Stagger Lee and shoots him in the groin. You can hear that version on their Shakedown Street album. And there’s a bootleg version of the song as sung by Elvis Presley during a rehearsal session, that also appears in the 1970 concert documentary, where he definitely knows the song but he’s also clearly jerking around with the words. Instead of singing about Billy’s “three little children and a very sickly wife,” Elvis sings …well, he sings this:


…and on, and on, and on, constantly changing and being reinvented, yet still remaining more or less the same.

And in the 2007 film Honeydripper, which is where I first went down this rabbit hole, it’s Keb Mo who sings a few bars of the song, causing Danny Glover’s character to mutter “I hate that song,” Later in the film we find out exactly why.


And now it’s time to answer the trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about the band that got themselves kicked out of their own record release party. If your first guess was the Sex Pistols, that’s a good guess and it would have been mine too, but that’s not the answer.


The event in question happened in September of 1991, at what—at the time—was a small beer and wine bar in Seattle. It was Friday the 13th, coincidentally, and Nirvana was expecting a relatively low-key event, but the fact is, the guest list and the general atmosphere put them way out of their comfort zone. They were polite enough most of the evening, signing autographs and being cordial with guests. Their album Nevermind was played through twice, and by most accounts that’s when the tide began to turn. The members of Nirvana asked the DJ to start playing different music, and people began to notice that they were getting way drunker than is typically possible just by drinking the beer that was available in the timeframe they were in. It turned out they were also putting away a couple of bottles’ worth of bourbon they’d sneaked in—which, by the way, is a violation of the liquor laws. The band members and their friends began pulling the Nirvana posters off the walls, and about the time they finished that, Krist Novoselic threw a tamale at Kurt Cobain. Cobain retaliated with guacamole, and before long a full-scale food fight was going on. One of the owners of the bar, Steve Wells, said in an interview that he and his partner rounded up the band and escorted them out the door, just in time to vomit in the street. Were they ashamed of their behavior? Oh, no. Novoselic says they thought it was amazing, and they spent some time in the alley, talking through a window to whatever friends of theirs remained inside. Finally some officers from the liquor board showed up, and Wells was forced to end the party early. So now you know: it was Nirvana that got kicked out of their own release party, because they started a food fight.


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