The OAM and I have talked off and on about the different versions of Stagger Lee that we have in our library (3 of them, Lloyd Price, Pacific Gas & Electric and Anonymously Yours). Upon his suggestion, I went out and looked for the history of the song.
Turns out it is a song based in history. A history with many versions.
In 1895 a man named Lee Shelton killed William Lyons in St. Louis, Missouri. It was one of five murders in the city that night but the circumstances surrounding it and the rumored particulars of the case led to its immortalization in song.
Lee Shelton was an organizer for the Democrat Party. Lyons was an organizer for the Republican Party. Shelton may have been a wealthy pimp and carriage driver and Lyons was a levee hand who was well connected through his sister’s marriage to one of the richest black men in St. Louis who owned the Bridgewater Saloon, a center of black Republican politics. Depending on the version of the story you want to believe, they may have been friends but possibly just acquaintances or maybe simply drunk in the same place. That place was Bill Curtis’ saloon, the Elite Club, a growing center of black Democrat politics for the red light district. As the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported on December 28, 1895, the two were friends who began to argue about politics while both were liquored up. Lyons grabbed Shelton’s new Stetson hat and would not surrender it. Shelton shot Lyons in the stomach, took his hat back and left the saloon. Lyons subsequently died of his wound. The paper reported that Lee Shelton was also known as “Stag Lee.”
Put into context of the time, things were tense on the political scene and St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the country coming into the election year of 1896. It had been a Republican stronghold but Democrats were making headway. Traditionally blacks had voted for the Republicans, but times were changing. Politicians were scraping for every vote there and the connection of the two men to the two political parties threw the case into prominence.
At first the case resulted in a hung jury. However, two years later Stagger Lee was tried again and convicted. It took only about five years after his conviction for the first printed lyrics to surface referring to the case.
The song became a staple of black culture with Stagger Lee becoming a hero to the populace as someone who could scare The Man into not arresting or convicting him. The man who took over Hell from the Devil himself.
Shelton was given a (possibly politically motivated) pardon 12 years into his 25 year sentence. Two years later he was back in prison for killing another man during a home robbery. A year into this second sentence he received a second pardon, but this time he died in prison of tuberculosis before he could be released. Versions of the song with him being dead by hanging or other justice were certainly in release during the time he was in prison.
The most popular version was Lloyd Price’s, released in 1958 it was the first number one single to ever be censored for airplay. Dick Clark thought it was too violent and Price rewrote the song to have a happy ending when he played it on American Bandstand.
Over 400 artists have recorded versions of this song. Notably, they don’t all have the same lyrics or even the same music. It isn’t just 400 covers of a song. Four hundred plus versions of the same event.
In a majority of the versions of the song, Stagger Lee is a powerful black man. Mississippi John Hurt’s version is considered by most to be the definitive version and he insisted that Stagger Lee was a white man.
If Stagger Lee was white, the hung jury surely resulted in an angry furor as it was reported that Shelton and his lawyer, a morphine addict who had previously won the first ever conviction in the state against a white man for the murder of a black man, were booed and hissed as they entered the courthouse. Given the political pressures of the time, I am inclined to think Lee was black. If the Democrats were trying to wrap up the black vote, why would a white killer receive not only one but two pardons that were rumored to be politically pressured by Democrats? And further, based on the time period, it is unlikely that a black man and a white man would have been drinking in the same establishment.
Also, descriptions of Lee have noted his tendency to sharp and flamboyant dress (thus the new Stetson hat). This and his second profession as pimp place him solidly within the black culture of the time.
And if he was black, that fits in with the versions of the song in which Staggolee cannot be arrested because the police are afraid of him or his “neck refused to crack” when he was hung. The versions in which he takes over Hell from the devil also likely come from the perception that Lee was black and a black man strong enough to do all of that would have quickly become a folk hero to an oppressed minority population, who, although having been freed from slavery 30 years prior, were still laboring under Jim Crow laws. A trickster type of character would appeal to people in less than optimum conditions who saw no path to change.
(As a side note, Frankie & Johnnie was originally written about yet another St. Louis murder that occurred a few blocks from Bill Curtis’ saloon right around the same time as the Lee-Lyons case…)
21 Frankie and Johnnie