Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: I have long wondered if there's a story behind Lloyd Price's big hit, “Stagger Lee.”

I know he wrote many of his songs, including “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” and “Personality,” so it does not surprise me to see his name as composer of “Stagger Lee.”

Also, I often hear an alternative take of this tune on the radio. It is similar to the '50s hit, but more subdued and with some different lyrics. Why?
—Colette D. Acker, New Haven, Conn.

DEAR COLETTE: Since Robert Wilmott, of Santa Barbara, Calif., also wants to know more about the two versions of “Stagger Lee,” let's take a closer look at the story of Stagger Lee and Billy.

An 1895 story in the St. Louis Globe Democrat reports that William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen by a carriage driver named Lee Sheldon, also known as Stag Lee.

Friends when sober, both had been drinking while discussing politics. During what turned into an argument, Lyons snatched Sheldon's [Stetson] hat from his head.

Sheldon demanded its return, but Lyons refused. Sheldon pulled his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When Billy fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the wounded man and calmly walked away.

Lee was quickly arrested while Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where he died.

Stag Lee's first trial ended in a hung jury, though he was convicted of the killing in a retrial and sent to prison.

It took no time for art to imitate life. Early in the 20th century, many blues and folk singers began telling the story of Lee and Billy.

Most have a somewhat different story line and many have varying titles.

The earliest one to hit the pop charts is “Stack O' Lee Blues,” by Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians (Victor 19189), issued in early 1924.

Dozens of recordings came out between the mid-'20s and 1950 — with titles such as “Stagger Lee; Stackerlee; Stagolee; Stackalee; Billy Lyons and Stack O'Lee; ” etc. — but the next one to become a hit is by Archibald and His Orchestra.

Archibald's lengthy version of the events, titled “Stack-A-Lee,” requires splitting the story into two parts, one on each side of the record (Imperial 5068). It became a Top 10 R&B hit in the summer of '50.

Clearly inspired by Archibald's boogie-woogie waxing, in 1958 Lloyd Price and Harold Logan made a dynamic rock and roll transformation in the instrumentation and production, but few changes in the lyrics. Their recording is the version that became No. 1 in early '59 (ABC-Paramount 9972).

Price's lyrics are nearly identical to “Stack-A-Lee, Part 1” which ends with Lee's bullet going right through Billy and breaking the bartender's glass.

But Archibald continues the saga in Part 2, where we learn some interesting post-homicide details:

Stack-A-Lee was seriously injured by the police while fleeing the crime scene, but he somehow managed to stumble home to his mother's door, where he died.

Of course Lee went to the devil, who needed him to identify poor Billy's soul. Naturally, the two once again got into it. The devil separated the combatants and put them side-by-side on his soul shelf — perhaps in canning jars.

As for the alternative take, Dick Clark reportedly objected to the gambling and bloodshed in Lloyd's hit. Not wanting to miss the publicity afforded by appearing on American Bandstand, Price gave the lyrics a major overhaul and remade it from scratch.

Among the changes in “Stagger Lee (Bandstand Version)” are:

Instead of gambling, Lee and Billy are arguing over a woman. It seems Lee hooked up with Billy's date.

Rather than going home for his .44, Lee simply takes a time-out to ponder the situation.

Cooler heads prevail and he decides to return Billy's girlfriend, much as he would a borrowed lawnmower.

All's well that ends well, and the two friends agree to fight no more.

Here is a chronological summary of just some of the folks who recorded “Stagger Lee,” though often using an alternative spelling of the title:

1923: Waring's Pennsylvanians; Frank Westphal & His Regal Novelty Orchestra.
1924: Herb Wiedoeft's Cinderella Roof Orchestra
1925: Ma Rainey & Her Georgia Band
1927: Evelyn Thompson; Jack Linx & His Society Serenaders; Frank Hutchison; Long Cleve Reed & The Down Home Boys.
1928: Duke Ellington & The Washingtonians; Cliff Edwards; Boyd Senter & His Senterpedes.
1929: Mississippi John Hurt; Furry Lewis.
1931: Cab Calloway & His Orchestra; Woody Guthrie.
1932: Carson Robison & His Pioneers.
1934: Foy Gant; Albert Jackson; Blind Pete and Partner; John “Big Nig” Bray.
1936: Group Of Women Prisoners, State Farm, Raiford, Florida; Lonnie Robertson.
1937: Bert Martin; Blind Jesse Harris.
1938: Johnny Dodds & His Chicago Boys.
1940: Luscious Curtis & Willie Ford.
1946: Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy & Sonny Boy Williamson.
1950: Archibald and His Orchestra.
1951: Tennessee Ernie Ford.
1958: Lloyd Price; Ken Colyer.
1959: Hogman Maxey; Jerry Lee Lewis.
1963: Isley Brothers.
1965: Tom Rush; Ike & Tina Turner.
1966: Prince Buster & His Trojans.
1967: James Brown; Wilson Pickett; Tim Hardin.
1969: Taj Mahal; P.J. Proby; Dion; Mike Bloomfield.
1970: Wilbert Harrison.
1971: Tommy Roe.
1972: Dr. John.
1975: Professor Longhair.
1978: Uncle John Patterson; Grateful Dead.
1979: The Clash.
1980: Neil Diamond.
1981: Southside Johnny & The Asbury Dukes.
1984: Neil Sedaka; Doug Sahm.
1987: Dead Brain Cells.
1993: Bob Dylan.
1996: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.

IZ ZAT SO? Surprisingly, “Stagger Lee” was originally intended to be the B-side of the single, the A-side being “You Need Love.”

Both the hit version of “Stagger Lee” and the one made specifically for American Bandstand are on the CD “Lloyd Price - Greatest Hits” (MCA 008811-11842-6).

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