The tall tale of Stagger Lee has been recorded countless times in many styles. The bad man Stagger Lee has been Stacker Lee, Stack-O-Lee, Stack Pole and more. We all know what happened. That bad old Stagger Lee killed Billy Lyons over a $5 Stetson hat. There are a lot of murder ballads in American song, maybe even more that songs about trains and songs about cars, but I think Stagger Lee even tops Little Sadie and Pretty Polly for murder ballad most recorded.
Stag Lee Shelton murdered Billy Lyons in St. Louis Missouri at Christmas, 1895. Wikipedia tells me that the song was first published in 1911 and recorded in 1923 or 1924 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians.
On Christmas night in 1895, Shelton and his acquaintance William “Billy” Lyons were drinking in the Bill Curtis Saloon. Lyons was also a member of St. Louis’ underworld, and may have been a political and business rival to Shelton. Eventually, the two men got into a dispute, during which Lyons took Shelton’s Stetson hat. Subsequently, Shelton shot Lyons, recovered his hat, and left. Lyons died of his injuries, and Shelton was charged, tried and convicted of the murder in 1897. He was pardoned in 1909, but returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery, and died in incarceration in 1912.
The first Stagger Lee I recall hearing was the R&B version by Lloyd Price. What a great recording that was. “I was standing on the corner, when I heard my bulldog bark – he was barkin’ at the two men who were gamblin’ in the dark…”. And those driving background vocals, “Go Stagger Lee, Go Stagger Lee”, and then the killer sax break. “Stagger Lee, cried Billy, oh please don’t take my life, I’ve got 3 little children and a very sickly wife.” But you all know what happened. That bad man, that pimp, that gambler, that bad old Stacker Lee pulled his 44 and it was all over.
The second version I recall hearing was Woody’s. “It was in a hustlin’ B joint where the Mississippi run, Stacker Lee killed Billy de Lyons with a smokin’ 41. He was a bad man, that mean old Stacker Lee”. Why hasn’t he been caught….”double up my fee, and I’ll bring back that bad man, name of Stacker Lee.”
Frank Hutchison’s performance gained some fame during the great folk music scare after it appeared on the Harry Smith anthology. Bob Dylan basically covered this version when he recorded Stagger Lee on World Gone Wrong. Here’s Frank Hutchison…
Let’s listen to one more. This is a wonderful old time version by Spencer Branch. That’s Martha Spencer on banjo, Kelley Breiding on guitar and Kilby Spencer on fiddle.