By Sam Levin
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Stagger Lee was one mean motherfucker. Billy Lyons called him a cockeyed son-of-a-bitch, so Stagger shot him. Actually, Stagger shot Lyons over a political argument. See, Stagger was a Democrat, and in the late 19th century, Billy didn't go for no party-defectin' brothers (the parties were switched back then). So Billy mumbled something about those fuckin' Democrats, and Stagger shot him. He shot Lyons on account of a hat. Or maybe it was over a game of cards. Billy was a wife-beater, and Stagger didn't appreciate wife-beaters, so Stagger shot him down.
Stagger Lee was a bad man in a bad mood, the moon was yellow, and he shot Billy Lyons because Billy looked at him funny. Lyons spit on Stagger's hat, so Stagger shot him.
"Stagger Lee met Billy and they got down to gambling. Stagger Lee throwed seven, Billy said that he throwed eight. So Billy said, 'Hey Stagger! I'm gonna make my big attack. I'm gonna have to leave my knife in your back.'" That's from a song called "Wrong 'Em Boyo," on the Clash's 1979 album London Calling. It tells one version of the story of Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons, how the former murdered the latter at a saloon in downtown St. Louis in 1895. The murder turned into an early blues song that turned into a 1959 hit by Lloyd Price that turned into an archetype that turned into a civic-pride tussle that jumped across the ocean and landed in London, where the Clash sang about it, and then jumped back, where it turned into, most recently, a Grateful Dead Beanie Bear stuffed animal. The story of Stagger Lee (or Stag Lee, Stack a Lee, Stagolee or Staggerlee) and Billy Lyons (or Billy Delions, Billy the Lion or any variation thereof) has been the subject of dissertations and speculation. Stagger has been used to capture the essence of Malcolm X and Sly Stone; he's embedded in the celebration of renegades Mike Tyson and Tupac Shakur. Beck has sung about Stagger Lee, as have Nick Cave, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt, Dr. John, Frank Hutchison, Duke Ellington, Neil Diamond and dozens of other artists over the last 100 years.
Stagger Lee was a bad man, the original gangsta, and he murdered Billy Lyons on account of a John B. Stetson hat.
On Christmas night 1895, at Bill Curtis' saloon at the corner of 11th and Morgan, a man named "Stack" Lee Shelton (also known in some accounts as "Sheldon") shot one Billy Lyons. Over the course of the century, that corner has been known as 11th and Delmar and, more recently, the unpoetic late-20th-century 11th and Convention Plaza. The spot is still there, of course, although the song born there has changed along with the world around it. That much we know. We also know that shortly after the incident a story and song were unleashed that spread and mutated into hundreds of variations, and central to all of them was the fact that Stagger Lee was hard-boiled and merciless. In time, the story grew to include variations about Stagger Lee's unbridled sexual appetite, his fancy dress (he wore "a $100 suit"), his battles with the police, his superhuman feats of jailbreak and recapture, and his ultimate hanging. Stagger Lee turned into a comic-book hero and antihero, an embodiment of all-powerful potential and blind rage.
"The larger part of the story is the myth," says Kevin Belford, a St. Louis blues historian, "and the myth happened shortly after the actual incident. Songs at that time would travel like wildfire. There were piano players everywhere; there were guitar players roaming even further. And they needed songs to play. Murder ballads and piano ballads are great fodder, and the piano players would do a Mark Russell/ Tom Lehrer thing, use the events of the day in a catchy little tune. They would more or less make them up on the spot -- not the music, necessarily, but the words -- and everybody would get a big kick out of it. It'd be like somebody playing a song now and putting words about Monica Lewinsky in there. And then with the railroads coming through and the steamers going both to New Orleans and north, the music moved everywhere. There were levee camps where a lot of the blues players played, plus we had all those ragtime guys still hanging out in St. Louis. They were probably the ones who started it."
But when the bullet struck Billy Lyons, it was just a murder (albeit a relatively publicized one for a black man in the 19th century) much like the dozens of others in St. Louis that year. For some reason, though, the story of this murder struck a nerve and traveled, and this fact has inspired blues and folklore researchers to investigate the facts surrounding the myth and the song. The question of whether the story took place in St. Louis or Memphis -- both cities have laid claim -- was long ago settled through research conducted by ethnomusicologists and folklore scholars. The main confusion among scholars owed to the fact that another "'Stack' Lee" existed. That man -- the white Samuel "Stacker" Lee, who lived in Memphis in the mid-1800s -- owned steamboats that traveled the Mississippi River. It's been submitted that Stagger Lee was a worker on one of "Stacker" Lee's boats and got his nickname from the original "Stacker."
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