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The Legend of Stagger Lee

In response to recent plans to “revitalize” the Arch Grounds and modify streets in downtown St. Louis, blogger Rick Bonash (of STL Rising) wrote a post entitled, “Staggered Lanes for the Home of Stagger Lee?” which refers to a notorious event in St. Louis history commemorated in American music throughout the 20th century (in blues, folk, rock, R&B, pop and more). Based on the true story of a legendary encounter of violence that encapsulated the kind of incident that St. Louisans wished to dispel.

Depiction of Stagger Lee in graphic novel.

From Wikipedia:

“Lee Shelton (March 16, 1865 – March 11, 1912) was an African American taxi cab driver and pimp convicted of murdering William “Billy” Lyons on Christmas Eve, 1895 in St. Louis, Missouri. The crime was immortalized in a popular song that has been recorded by numerous artists. Stagger Lee (also “Stackalee,” “Stackolee” and “Stagolee”) ultimately becomes a folk figure of the trickster type as numerous legends accumulate around him.”

Mississippi John Hurt’s original 1928 recordings.

From an article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat from 1895:

William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon  were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, 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 withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station.

It seems that the earliest recorded version of the song may have been by Mississippi John Hurt from 1928. He tells the tale in this recording and a later recording of the legend (beautifully sung and played).

Bluesman Mississippi John Hurt

Taj Mahal’s Stagger Lee (1969)

Taj Mahal, folk, blues and rock musician.

Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee (first number 1 Rock & Roll song to be censored):

“Stagger Lee” topped the pop and R&B charts, sold over a million copies. Dick Clark insisted the violent content of the song be toned down when Price appeared on American Bandstand but it was still the “violent” version that was on top of the R&B charts of 1959.

Lloyd Price

Pop music’s Neil Diamond.

Neil Diamond

Grateful Dead (live recording from 1993).

Grateful Dead in concert in the late 1960s.

Post-punk alternative group Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (2004).

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
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