[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
Gordon Robertson

"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 
‘Em Boyo”.
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
Further information:
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 
Stagolee myth
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 

Selected recordings

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.    "

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list