[Dixielandjazz] Stack 'o' Lee or variations on a theme!
Jazzjerry at aol.com
Jazzjerry at aol.com
Tue Dec 9 10:07:26 PST 2003
Hi Rae Ann and others,
On the subject of the above I can now post the following rather long article
on the subject which you might fing interesting:-
"The True Story of Stagolee
"Knowing my enthusiasm for 50s black R&B and Lloyd Price, a few months ago,
Geoff passed me a copy of an article from The Guardian about a book by Cecil
Brown tracing the remarkable tale of Stagolee. It was a fascinating read which
traces the roots of the ballad going under various names of Stagger Lee, Stack
Lee or Stack O’Lee back to its true story.
The song has survived for over 100 years with musicians still relishing the
ice-cold murder ballad even up to very recent times and over 200 hundred
versions have been recorded.
In the red-light district of St Louis in 1895, a pimp shot a man dead in an
argument over a hat.
The killer was a black man named Lee Shelton. Most of the ballads say
Stagolee was a gambler, but it appears that he was also a "maquereau", a French term
for pimp - often abbreviated to "mack", which describes men who were kept by
As a pimp and leader of a group called the Stags, Shelton was a slum hero,
reigning in an area called Deep Morgan. According to eyewitnesses, on Christmas
night, 1895, around 10 o'clock, Shelton walked into the Curtis saloon, in the
heart of Deep Morgan, and asked the bartender: "Who's treating?" In reply,
someone pointed out William Lyons. Apparently, the two men drank and laughed
together for some time until the conversation turned to politics.
Soon, they began to exchange blows by striking each other's hats. Shelton
grabbed Lyons's derby and knocked it out of shape. Lyons said he wanted payment
of "six bits" from Stagolee for damaging his derby. Then Lyons grabbed
Shelton's hat. In an attempt to make him give it back, Shelton pulled his .44 Smith &
Wesson revolver from his coat, and hit Lyons on the head with it. Still Lyons
would not relinquish the hat. Shelton demanded it again, saying that if Lyons
didn't give him his hat immediately, he was going to kill him.
Next, Lyons reached into his pocket for a knife and approached Shelton,
saying: "You cock-eyed son-of-a-bitch, I'm going to make you kill me." Stagolee
backed off and took aim. The 25 people in the saloon flew for the door. Only
bartenders and a few others drinking at the bar stayed. Witnesses later testified
to the coroner that they then saw Shelton shoot Lyons.
One of the witnesses claimed that after he was shot, Billy "staggered against
the side of the bar, leaned against the railing, holding the hat in his
fingers…it seemed he was getting weak, and he let the hat drop out of his hands.
Stagolee says, 'Give me my hat, nigger' . . . and he picks it up and walks out
into the brisk air."
Lee Shelton however was not part of a marginalised underclass - rather, in
the context of the times, as a ‘mack’ he was a powerful and respected man and
indeed very wealthy. Wealthy enough to appoint the foremost lawyer of the time
as his defence and to post bail of $2000 on his own account, a fantastic sum
for the time.
In the first trial, Stagolee got off with a hung jury. After two years in the
courts, at the retrial in 1897, with a new judge and in the absence of his
top-drawer lawyer, he was sentenced to 25 years. After being released by the
Democratic powers that be, he was out for a few years and then returned for
pistol-whipping another man. He died in the state prison in 1912, aged 46.
After the murder, the ballad telling of Stagolee's exploits began to spread
across the American south and west. Early folklorists took an interest in the
ballad as early as 1911, when Guy B Johnson published the first version in the
prestigious ‘Journal of American Folklore’.
And interestingly, although the story of Stagolee is defiantly a black story,
the first recorded versions were by white dance bands. In 1923, it was
recorded by Waring’s Pennsylvanians and Frank Westphal & His Regal Novelty Orchestra.
The earliest version I’ve heard is also by a white artist - hillbilly Frank
Hutchinson who learnt the song from black cripple, Bill Hunt - recorded in
1927, it was this version which Bob Dylan adapted in 1993.
Duke Ellington recorded a version in 1928 and there’s a jazz related version
from the Bechet-Nicholas Blue Five, a bit later from 1946, recorded for Blue
Archivist John Lomax went around the southern states collecting the songs for
the Library of Congress during the 1930s. Many of these versions are much
more detailed than the popular recordings and there are many examples of the oral
tradition from black prison convict recorded in the 1940s.
In 1959, the song Stagger Lee became a number one for the rock'n'roller Lloyd
Price, selling a million copies and topping the charts but there’s some
controversy over the link between his version and an earlier 1950 version by New
Orleans barrelhouse piano player, Archibald Cox,
Cecil Brown said in a radio interview for Great Portland’s WMPG station,
“It’s very close to parts of Lloyd Price’s version but Lloyd Price doesn’t go
much into all the stanzas that Cox does.. Lloyd Price was sued by Cox too and I
did ask Price if he knew Cox. He said - yes he knew him but he was really not
so much influenced by Cox as by many, many other versions of Stagolee that
were being performed around that time, the late 1950s in the New Orleans area”.
You can also hear a strong link between the Archibald version with its stress
on the offbeat and the Jamaican ska tradition and it’s no surprise that
there’s a version recorded by Prince Buster in 1966. And it’s the energy of this
amalgam of ska and New Orleans R&B which attracted the punk band The Clash, as
utilised in their version from 1979 which forms part of a track called “Wrong
In the 1960s, the civil rights movement took to Stagolee. At the height of
the Black is Beautiful era, James Brown and Wilson Pickett recorded the Stagolee
song. Bobby Seale, the leader of the Black Panthers, used it to recruit young
black men to the party. He said. "Malcolm X at one time was an illegitimate
hustler. Later in life Malcolm X grows to have the most profound political
consciousness... So symbolically, at one time he was Stagolee... "
The connection between the bad man ballads and hip-hop was the form known as
the ‘toast’ - a recited story in verse. In telling the Stagolee legend as a
toast, the speaker takes on the role of Stagolee and the character of the hero
he is singing about. Asserting themselves as bullies and bad men, young black
men ‘perform’ Stagolee. The toast became an instrument that allowed them to
be powerful and charismatic.
In the development of rap music and hip-hop culture, Stagolee's influence is
very clear. It persists in rap in the use of the first-person narrator, the per
former’s adoption of nicknames, the social drama, the humour and the
participation in commodity culture.
Stagolee is composed of cliché lines that are easy to remember. In rap music,
performers found it necessary to use such clichés to keep the rap going.
In the 1890s, the Stetson hat became a symbol of black male status; in the
late 1990s, gangsta rappers used lifestyle commodities - cars, clothes, girls -
as signifiers of success and wealth.
The term and the concept of the modern-day "mack" celebrated in hip-hop are a
retrieval of the old cliché of the St Louis mack that Lee Shelton once
It’s interesting to note that Cecil Brown’s favourite version was
circulating in 1903 and was never recorded, partly due to the scarcity of recording
technology in that era but not least because as he says ‘no-one would dare put it
on record - it was a bawdy version but I call it authentic and pretty much
what it must have been like one night when Tom Turpin was at the piano and
everybody in the room new the story and they wanted to re-ritualise it, to re-live
it, to really get into it, to drag it all out and go through all the emotions
and the triumphs about someone they knew”.
Australian alternative musician Nick Cave picked up on this version in his
1996 recording of Stagger Lee. Says Cave,” I like the way the simple, almost
naive traditional murder ballad has gradually become a vehicle that can happily
accommodate the most twisted acts of deranged machismo. Just like Stag Lee
himself, there seems to be no limits to how evil this song can become."
I think Cave captures the coldness and ruthlessness of the archetype quite
successfully and it shows that even after more than 100 years, the myth of
Stagolee is a powerful as it ever was.
With acknowledgements to:
Cecil Brown’s article entitled “Godfather of Gangsta” published in The
Guardian Arts Friday Review, 9 May 2003
Stagolee Shot Billy: Cecil Brown (Harvard University Press
Cecil Brown’s own website with sound clips and additional information
Original Stack O’Lee Blues by The Down Home Boys (Black Patti 8030) lyrics
and sound clips
A Nick Cave fan website explaining the development of his interest in the
WPMG: Great Portland Community Radio
Listen to host Tom Flynn as he tracks the history of Stagolee, the song and
legend. Augmented by real audio clips of an exclusive nine part interview
conducted with Dr Cecil Brown
Title Performer Year of Performance
Stagger Lee Waring's Pennsylvanians 1923
Stagger Lee Frank Westphal & His Regal Novelty Orchestra 1923
Stagger Lee Herb Wiedoeft's Cinderella Roof Orchestra 1924
Stack O'Lee Blues Ma Rainey & Her Georgia Band 1925
Stagger Lee Evelyn Thompson 1927
Stagger Lee Jack Linx & His Society Serenaders 1927
Stackalee Frank Hutchison 1927
Original Stack O'Lee Blues Long Cleve Reed & The Down Home Boys 1927
Stack O'Lee Blues Duke Ellington & The Washingtonians 1928
Stack O'Lee Cliff Edwards 1928
Stagger Lee Boyd Senter & His Senterpedes 1928
Stack O'Lee Blues Mississippi John Hurt 1929
Billy Lyons And Stack O'Lee Furry Lewis 1929
Stagger Lee Cab Calloway & His Orchestra 1931
Stagger Lee Woody Guthrie 1931
Stack O'Lee Blues 1 and 2 Carson robison & His Pioneers 1932
Stackerlee Foy Gant, Austin, Texas 1934*
Stagolee Albert Jackson, State Farm, Atmore, Alabama 1934*
Stagolee Blind Pete and Partner, Little Rock, Arkansas 1934*
Stagolee John (Big Nig) Bray, Amelia, Louisiana 1934*
Stagolee Group Of Women Prisoners, State Farm, Raiford, Florida 1936*
Stagolee Lonnie Robertson, State pen., Parchman, Mississippi 1936*
Stagolee Bert Martin, Manchester, Kentucky 1937*
Stagolee Blind Jesse Harris, Livingston, Alabama 1937*
Stack O'Lee Blues Johnny Dodds & His Chicago Boys 1938
Stagolee Luscious Curtis & Willie Ford, Natchez, Mississippi 1940*
Staggerlee Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy & Sonny Boy Williamson 1946
Staggerlee Bama A Convict 1947*, incl. on Murderer's Home
Stack-a-Lee Pts 1 and 2 Archibald 1950
Stack-o-Lee Tennessee Ernie Ford 1951
Stagger Lee Lloyd Price 1958
Stack-o-Lee Blues Ken Colyer 1958
Staggerlee Sung by Hogman Maxey, Convict 1959*, incl. on Angola Prisoner's
Stagger Lee Jerry Lee Lewis 1959
Staggerlee The Isley Brothers 1963
Stack O'Lee Tom Rush 1965
Stagger Lee and Billy Ike & Tina Turner 1965
Stack O'Lee Prince Buster & His Trojans 1966
Stagger Lee James Brown 1967
Stagger Lee Wilson pickett 1967
Stagger Lee Tim Hardin 1967
Staggerlee Taj Mahal 1969
Stagger Lee PJ Proby 1969
Stagger Lee DION 1969
Stagger Lee Mike Bloomfield 1969
Staggerlee Wilbert Harrison 1970
Stagger Lee Tommy Roe 1971
Stack-a-Lee Pts 1 and 2 Dr. John 1972
Stagger Lee Professor Longhair 1975
Stagolee Was A Bully Uncle John Patterson 1978
Stagger Lee The Grateful Dead 1978
Stagger Lee/ Wrong 'Em Boyo The Clash 1979
Stagger Lee Neil Diamond 1980
Staggerlee Southside Johnny & The Asbury Dukes 1981
Staggerlee Neil Sedaka 1984
Stagger Lee Doug Sahm 1984
Stack O'Lee Blues Dead brain cells 1987
Stack A Lee Bob Dylan 1993
Stagger Lee Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds 1996
(*) Denotes field recording. List compiled by James Maycock. "
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