The Legend of Stagger Lee


Strictly speaking, a legend is defined as, “a story coming down from the past, especially one popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable.”  The story of Stagger Lee is verifiable. But the reality has become mythologized …

In early 1959, a song by Lloyd Price called “Stagger Lee” reached the top of the charts. The lyric goes like this:

Stagger Lee
Cried Billy
Oh please don’t take my life
I’ve got three little children
And a very
Sickly wife

Stagger Lee shot Billy
Oh, he shot that poor boy so bad
Till the bullet came through Billy
And it broke the
Bartender’s glass

The song is fairly upbeat and for years I thought of it as another “done somebody wrong” song. Which it is. However, it is neither myth nor legend but is in fact based on a true story:

In December of 1895, in St. Louis, a guy named Lee Shelton – variously known as Stagger Lee, Stag Lee, Stack O’ Lee – shot a man named William Lyons, 25, over a Stetson hat. (He may have gotten his nickname from a riverboat called the Stack Lee, which had on-board prostitution.)

According to a newspaper article, “Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits.  Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together.” (According to Wikipedia, Stagger Lee was a well-known pimp.)

The discussion drifted to politics (they were apparently both local organizers) 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.

Now there are many, many versions (over 400) of this song. (The Price version invents a gambling dispute.)  So how did this story become folklore?

According to an article called, “Exploring and Decoding the Legend of the Black Badman Known as Stagger Lee,” in the Lloyd Price version, the backup singers sing “Go, Stagger Lee.” But in a later Huey Lewis version, they sing “Whoa! Stagger Lee.”

So the thing you should know is that both Billy and Stagger Lee were black. Lloyd Price was black, Huey Lewis is white. Why significant? According to the article, “Stagger Lee was a symbol of resistance and freedom to African-Americans.  This was because, while southern blacks  had to abide by the twisted laws and customs which created segregation and the Jim Crow system, Stagger Lee defied white authority and was so “bad” that he could get away with it.

He was an admired figure whose legend revolved around his badness, a badness which put him above the white man’s law and allowed him to pass freely through the racial boundaries established by Jim Crow.”

And that Stetson hat? A symbol of manhood. Touch my hat, you’re fucking with me, brother.

So the legend has come down through the ages and everybody from big band Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians (!), to the Grateful Dead to Amy Winehouse to the Black Keys have done a version. I bet half of them don’t even know what the fuck the song is about.

Lee Shelton was tried,  convicted, and went to jail. He was pardoned but eventually wound up getting incarcerated again for doing some other bad shit. He died in jail in 1912. So truthfully, Stagger Lee – badass though he may have been – never really beat the system. But legends are like daydreams.  You can shape them any way you want.

And that, my friends, is the story of Stagger Lee.

But I would be remiss if  I didn’t leave you with one of my favorite versions of the song.  The Clash covered a song called “Wrong ’em Boyo” by a rocksteady (precursor to reggae) band called The Rulers about whom I can find almost nothing. But the cover is great and not only is it a good way to end the story,  frankly it’s just an excuse to throw in another Clash song. 😀

13 thoughts on “The Legend of Stagger Lee

  1. Interesting post on “Stagger Lee” for one thing it cleared up a mystery for me to why someone would find a need to write this song? Another turn of events is that your post took me to the Clash song, “Wrong ‘Em Boyo’, which I really liked.

    I thought maybe it was time to listen to the other Clash music you posted. I listened to a little of their earlier music but didn’t connect with their earlier songs. Went to your final post on the Clash and realized I knew this band’s songs. They were one of very few bands in the 80’s that I didn’t change the radio station when they came on. I thought their music was pure, raw rock music and remember liking what I heard.

    Your video post on ‘The Clash – London Calling, Paris 1980’ was, unfortunately, deleted so went on YouTube and found three videos under the same name. Listened a little to all three but played “Stand By Me” all the way through. Really liked this version of the song and the guitar work is just great. Another favorite was “Spanish Bombs”. Will continue to listen to more of the Clash music as I go on. Also, thanks for the “London Calling” Grammys video with Bruce and company.

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  2. Yeah, not just one song but 400 of them! I love “Wrong ’em Boyo.” So upbeat I have it on my iPod and listen all the time. And that speaks somewhat to your comment about their earlier music. That stuff was flat-out punk at first. The later stuff revealed their ability to turn a good pop or rock song. (They didn’t write “Boyo” but they sure as hell improved on it.) It took me a while to catch on to The Clash. Not my generation or genre. But I really grew to like them. Plus they really tried hard to stay true to their leftist principles.

    Thanks for letting me know about the deleted song. I’m about halfway through reviewing all my posts and either finding replacements or dumping reference to a particular song. Thus far the deleted ones have been the great minority.

    BTW, Stand by me is really called “Train in Vain” to avoid confusion with the older song.

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    1. Thanks for letting me know about the song being “Train in Vain”. I saw that on a few of the videos but didn’t play it because I wasn’t familiar with the title. I will check it out. Any chance you have a favorite Clash list? You say 400 but I just need a top 25 list for a start.

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      1. Actually the ‘400’ I was referring to were the 400 known versions of “Stagger Lee” I referenced in the post. So that’s that topic.

        As to Clash songs, if you listen to the London Calling album, that’s 19 right there. Then “Magnificent Seven,” and “Hitsville Uk,” from Sandinista. Add in their great version of “I Fought the Law.” Then “Death or Glory,” “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “Rock the Casbah,” and “Straight to Hell.” That should keep you busy for a while. 😀

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        1. Thank you for the Clash songs. Sorry for straying off topic sort of got caught up with the Clash music being more familiar than I realized. Will try to stay on topic going forward. 🙂

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        2. Are you kidding? That’s exactly what I’m looking for. That’s real conversation. That’s how it flows, right? Plus, as much as I loved the story of Stagger Lee, I was also really trying to sneak Wrong ’em Boyo in. So your using that post to know more about Stagger Lee AND the Clash is the proverbial win-win. 😀

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        3. Okay. Got it. I’m totally surprised how your postings are taking me in all different directions about music not expected. I will go forward with my ramblings wherever they take me…

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  3. You are not only a “Music Enthusiast”, you are also a “Music Historian”. Great comments above. So many cool versions of SL. The Clash were just a great band for so many reasons. Good stuff!!

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  4. Yes, one day after I’m gone they will take me and my blog, stick us in a time capsule of some sort and set the controls for the heart of the sun. I’ll go out in a blaze of rock and roll glory!

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