Unlike Little Harvey Hull's 1927 treatment, Price's version invites white folks in to join the fun. They could relish the vicarious thrill of imagining themselves both freer and more frightening than they'd ever be in real life while still enjoying the comforts which their safe, middle-class life provided. A character like Stag can be very attractive to white suburban listeners, as the critic Bob Fiore pointed out when discussing gangsta rap in 2003. “He lives a life of adventure, wealth, violence and indulgence,” Fiore said. “He gets to murder people who annoy him, then obligingly reminds the audience of the relative security of their own existence through his nasty and early demise. [...] To an audience that perceives itself constrained by new rules of decorum, he represents a kind of alpha-dog masculinity they can only dream of” (16).
Even the dream was thought too dangerous for American TV viewers in the late 1950s, leading the presenter Dick Clark to insist Price cut a sanitised version of the song before he could appear on American Bandstand. In the bowdlerised lyrics, Stag and Billy argue rather than gamble, regret the harsh things they've said, and then part the best of friends.
Price's chart success with Stagger Lee made his version of events the template for many of the tellings that followed. It also made the song popular enough for artists in a couple of new genres to adopt it. Until 1959, Stagger Lee had mostly belonged to folk and blues musicians, with just the occasional jazz or country outing thrown in. Price's hit prompted soul and reggae performers to join in too.
Ike & Tina Turner opened soul music's bidding in 1965 by placing Tina in a dance club where she watched Billy beating Stag to a pulp for kissing his (Billy's) wife. The song fades out before Stag has any opportunity to take revenge. James Brown funked things up with The Fabulous Flames' staccato horns in 1967, the same year Wilson Pickett galloped through his own version. Both Brown and Pickett stick closely to Price's plot.
Meanwhile, Jamaicans were listening to US R&B on the radio, adapting its storylines and rhythms for their own use. Prince Buster liked Price's tune enough to create a rude boy called Stack O'Lee with his 1966 reggae version, prompting what was effectively an answer record the following year.
The Rulers, an island rocksteady outfit, had already made a couple of records warning against the consequences of rude boys' delinquency, and saw Prince Buster's hit as an opportunity to drive this point home again. They open Wrong 'Em Boyo with a couple of lines from Price's song to establish Billy's cheating ways, and then spend the rest of the song pointing out that this is really no way to behave.
When The Clash came to record their 1979 album London Calling, it was only natural that Wrong 'Em Boyo should come up as a candidate for one of their covers. Paul Simonon, The band's resident reggae expert, had ensured a copy of The Rulers' single found its way on to the jukebox at The Clash's Camden Town rehearsal rooms. Joe Strummer knew Price's version of Stagger Lee very well from his days performing it with his old pub rock band The 101ers.
The Clash sketch out a brief scene from Stag and Billy's fight with some lyrics of their own and then turbo-charge The Rulers' hit into a piece of what Charles Shaar Murray of the rock weekly NME called “tense, jumping ska” (17). Here's the key verses:
“Stagger Lee met Billy,
And they got down to gambling,
Stagger Lee throwed seven,
Billy said that he throwed eight,
“Billy said 'Hey Stagger,
I'm gonna make my big attack,
I'm gonna have to leave my knife,
In your back'.”
“So Billy Boy has been shot,
And Stagger Lee's come out on top,
Don't you know it is wrong,
To cheat the trying man?
Don't you know it is wrong,
To cheat the Stagger man?
You better stop,
It is the wrong 'em boyo!” (18)
The lines about Billy's knife, the reference to his shooting and the specific identification of Stag as the wronged party are all Clash additions to this composite song. The end result is to remove any possible ambiguity from The Rulers' version and make it clear that the scolding is directed at Billy alone. Never slow to glamorise an outlaw, The Clash use this cracking version of The Rulers' hit to give Stag his biggest vote of confidence yet.
Shelton had an eventful career in prison. He was less than 18 months into his sentence when, in March 1899, he was given five lashes for “loafing” in the exercise yard. Three months later, he was reprimanded for shooting craps. His Democrat friends outside the prison had not forgotten him, however, and continued to petition for his parole. Shelton helped things along by giving Jefferson City guards the information they needed to detect a “systematic theft” in the prison.
By 1909, the Bridgewater family were taking Shelton's chances of parole seriously enough to fight back. Eliza Bridgewater, Billy's sister, wrote to the parole board urging them to make Shelton serve his full sentence. “I hope and pray that you will never agree to let a man who never worked a day or earned an honest dollar be turned out to meet us face to face,” she wrote. “As a sister, I beg you not to turn a man like him on the community at large. If justice had been done, he would have hung. Just think, he has not served half his term” (19).
Despite Eliza's protests, Shelton got his parole and walked out of the prison at the end of November 1909. But he didn't stay out for long. In January 1911, he robbed a black man called William Atkins, breaking his skull with a revolver before stealing $60 from the house. He was caught, sentenced to five years, and returned to prison on May 7 the same year.