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A Christmas Killing: Stagger Lee

By Paul Slade
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Murder Ballads
Secret London

“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 four 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.
The new century's seen other media join in too. In 2006, Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix published a fat graphic novel telling Stagger Lee's story in careful detail. Movie versions have come from Samuel L Jackson, who gives a storming live rendition of the song in 2007's Black Snake Moan, and Eric Bibb, who uses it to comment on the action unfolding around his character in the following year's Honeydripper.

All versions tell the same core story, but no two of them seem able to agree on the details

All these versions tell the same core story, but no two of them seem able to agree on the details. A man named Stack Lee - or Stagger Lee, or Stack O'Lee - goes to a bar called The Bucket Of Blood - or sometimes The White Elephant - where he kills a man called Billy Lyons - or Billy Lion, or Billy DeLyon - for stealing - or winning - his Stetson hat. The story takes place in St Louis - or Memphis or New Orleans - in 1932, 1940 or 1952. Sometimes Stack kills the bartender first for disrespecting him and then moves on to Billy, who's done nothing to offend him at all. He's a sadistic killer in one version and a wronged innocent in the next. All these songs are about Lee Shelton - or “Sheldon” as the Globe-Democrat initially had it - but who was he?
To answer that question, let's start by looking at the city where he lived. St Louis had built its prosperity as a busy riverboat port, servicing the hundreds of steamers that sailed up and down the Mississippi between Minneapolis and New Orleans. This brought a constant traffic of gamblers, drifters and riverboat workers, all anxious to raise hell in St Louis for a day or two before continuing their journey. Itinerant railway workers joined the party in the 1850s, as St Louis became a key conduit point for pioneers heading west. The end of the Civil War in 1865 brought a huge increase in St Louis' black population, as former slaves flooded up from the South for the new factory jobs and the greater liberty which a Northern city promised to provide.
Wages for all these new workers were low, but still gave them more disposable income than they'd ever had before, and they all needed somewhere to burn up their paycheck on a Saturday night. In 1874, the Mississippi was bridged at St Louis for the first time, opening the city's riverfront vice districts to the even rougher residents of East St Louis, just across the river. St Louis' population increased seven-fold between 1850 and 1900, reaching 575,238 as the new century began(1).
As all these new developments tumbled forwards, law and order struggled to keep pace. The city's first police force was not established until 1846, and it's courthouse not completed till the following year. Thirty years later, the novelist Theodore Dreiser, then a young court reporter, found corruption was still rife at the notorious Four Courts on Clark Street.
“A more dismal atmosphere than that which prevailed in this building would be hard to find,” he wrote. “Harlots, criminals, murderers, buzzard lawyers, political judges, detectives, police agents and court officials generally - what a company! [...] The petty tyrannies that are practiced by underlings and minor officials! The 'grafting' of low, swinish brains! The tawdry pomp of ignorant officials! The cruelty and cunning of agents of justice! [...] To me, it was a horrible place, a pest-hole of suffering and error and trickery” (2).
The Four Courts governed Chestnut Valley, the city's busiest vice district, where black and white prostitutes alike worked around the clock. Even the humblest customers could find somewhere to get soused there, thanks to the many establishments selling “nickel shots” of rot-gut whiskey at just 5c a hit.
It was also an area where the normal segregation of the races was forgotten, allowing blacks and whites to intermingle and even have sex together. When business was slow in the valley's main streets, the girls would draw attention by knocking on the windows of each bar they passed. This habit was much resented by the other prostitutes working inside the bars, and would sometime spark an entertaining catfight in the gutter outside. What policing there was in Chestnut Valley was likely to be brutal, racist and crooked, as witness the case of Duncan & Brady, the story of a murdered cop, which inspired its own St Louis ballad in the 1890s.

Shots in the dark: 10 versions you must hear

The Trial of Stagger Lee, by Stella Johnson (1961). This chug-along sixties soul version is set in a courtroom packed with women. They're all anxious to believe Stag's claim that he didn't know the gun was loaded, chanting “Not Guilty” at the far more sceptical judge. Stagger Lee, we conclude, is just too much man for any woman to want to see him jailed. Available on: An Introduction to Night Train New Orleans (Night Train, 2001).

Stagger Lee, by The Ventures (1963). The world's finest surf guitar act twang up Lloyd Price's tune to admirable effect on this long-neglected instrumental. Well worth the 36-year wait for Ace to exhume it. Available on: In The Vaults Volume 2 (Ace, 1999).

Stagger Lee, by Moustique (1963). There's a Dutch language Stackalee too - recorded by Meindert Talma in 2006 - but I prefer the French. Using Price's tune as their template, Moustique take full advantage of the “Stagger Lee: Mon Ami” rhyme which only their native tongue can offer. Available on: Twistin' the Rock (Universal, 1963).

Stagger Lee, by Dave “Baby” Cortez (1965). Cortez scored a couple of US chart hits with his R&B organ instrumentals in the late 1950s and early 60s. Here it sounds like he's playing an old cinema organ, with quick, shrill solos and a driving soul band beneath. Available on: Dave “Baby” Cortez (Sequel, 1995).

Stagger Lee, by Elvis Presley (1970). Presley was rehearsing for a show in Culver City, California, when this fragment of the song was recorded. The sound quality's not great, but you can hear he's enjoying himself. “I got 300 little kids,” he howls as the band loosens up behind him. “And a very horny wife.” Available on: Get Down & Get With It (Bootleg).

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