Greatest Songs, #456: “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price

Year: 1958
Written by: Lloyd Price & Harold Logan
Billboard Hot 100: #1

 From Rolling Stone:

Stagger Lee was the original gangsta, celebrated by Delta bluesmen for decades before Price cut this song featuring Lee’s bullet speeding through a victim and breaking a bartender’s glass. When Price performed the song on American Bandstand, Dick Clark made him alter the lyrics so that Lee doesn’t even draw his .44.

From Wikipedia:

“Stagger Lee”, also known as “Stagolee”“Stackerlee”“Stack O’Lee”“Stack-a-Lee” and several other variants, is a popular blues folk song based on the murder of William “Billy” Lyons by Stagger Lee Shelton. The version recorded by Mississippi John Hurt in 1928 is considered by some commentators to be definitive, containing as it does all of the elements that appear in other versions.

A cover with different lyrics was a chart hit for Lloyd Price in 1959; Dick Clark felt that the original tale of murder was too morbid for his American Bandstand audience, and insisted that they be changed to eliminate the murder. In this version, the subject was changed from gambling to fighting over a woman, and instead of a murder, the two yelled at each other, and made up the next day.

“Stag O Lee” songs may have predated even the 1895 incident, and Lee Shelton may have gotten his nickname from earlier folk songs. The first published version of the song was by folklorist John Lomax in 1910. The song was well known in African American communities along the lower Mississippi River by the 1910s.

Before World War II, it was almost always known as “Stack O’Lee.” W.C. Handy wrote that this probably was a nickname for a tall person, comparing him to the tall smokestack of the large steamboat Robert E. Lee. By the time W.C. Handy wrote that explanation in the 1920s, “Stack O’ Lee” was already familiar in United States popular culture, with recordings of the song made by such pop singers of the day as Cliff Edwards.

In Hurt’s version, as in all such pieces, there are many (sometimes anachronistic) variants on the lyrics. Several older versions give Billy’s last name as “De Lyons” or “Deslile.”