Original Gangsta

Legendary badass Stagger Lee, hailed in song by musicians everywhere, came to fame right here in St. Louis

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.

No, wait.
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."

The most extensive research was conducted by the late John Russell David in 1976 as part of his doctoral thesis in philosophy at St. Louis University. During his watershed study of the early blues ballad (along with two other famous blues songs that originated in downtown St. Louis in the late 19th century, "Duncan and Brady" and "Frankie and Johnny"), David uncovered countless documents -- the original coroner's report, a transcript of the original inquest, articles from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and more -- confirming St. Louis as the origin of the song and the myth that steamrolled their way across America.

These days, the northwest corner of 11th and Convention -- the exact site of Bill Curtis' saloon -- isn't much. NationsBank has offices there, in a brick box of a building obviously designed in the '60s. Another square building sits across 11th from the

storied corner, and on the other side of Convention Plaza lie parking lots. An American flag flies where I imagine the door to the saloon was; red paint (coincidental -- or not?) is spattered on the sidewalk. Not the locale you'd imagine as ground zero for the myth.

In 1895, though, the area was crammed with buildings -- downtown extended much farther north. Walk directly east 11 blocks along a building-lined corridor (three and four stories, tops -- the 11-story Wainwright Building had been finished just five years earlier), and you'd find yourself on the river, where warehouses and loading docks held merchandise for the entire Midwest. Walk a few blocks north, and two dozen tracks were filled with trains distributing the goods stored in warehouses throughout downtown. These warehouses were owned by companies like Globe Pickle, Columbia Incandescent Lamp, Mound City Wood Novelties, Beckfold Printing & Book Manufacturing and St. Louis Candy. It was in this world that Stack Lee shot Billy Lyons.

David's research turned up the original coroner's report of Billy Lyons and provides an "official" account of a seemingly typical shooting:

"On a 'cold and frosty night' in 1895, St. Louis police officers John Flanigan and A. Falvey were summoned to Central District headquarters. Shortly after 10:00 p.m. a violent brawl and killing involving two Negroes was reported at Bill Curtis' saloon at Eleventh and Morgan streets in the heart of the Bloody Third District. When the officers arrived on the scene, William Lyons, a Negro, was already being rushed to City Hospital. Lyons had been shot by Lee Shelton, alias Stack Lee ... At 4 a.m. on the morning of December 26, 1895, William Lyons died."

The fight, according to David's summary of the inquest held the next day, began when Lee and Lyons argued over politics. Both were drunk. "The quarrel over politics soon turned to an exchange of blows. The two men began striking each other's hats. Lee grabbed Lyons' derby and broke it. In return Lyons grabbed Lee's hat. There is no indication that Stack's hat was a Stetson." The two spit words at each other, Lyons holding Lee's hat while demanding restitution for the broken derby. Apparently Lyons stepped forward and made a motion toward his pocket, and "Shelton retreated a few paces and pulled his forty-four ... As Lyons approached, Stack fired once. The impact of the bullet, fired at close range, carried Lyons back against the railing of the bar. He staggered momentarily, still clutching Lee's hat in his fingers ... As he fell, Lee's hat rolled from his grasp. 'Give me my hat, nigger,' said Stack Lee. He picked up his hat beside Lyons' outstretched hand and walked 'cooly' out of the saloon into the brisk night air."

Lee was arrested the next day, tried and convicted. Released from jail in 1909, he committed a robbery in 1911. He was caught and sent back to jail but was released shortly before his death of tuberculosis in March 1912. During Lee's time in jail, the song turned into a folktale. "Ironically," according to David's dissertation, "the ballad of 'Stagolee' appeared in the Journal of American Folklore over six months before Stack Lee died."

So a song about a murder originated here, in the shadow of the Trans World Dome. Who cares?

In his landmark book Mystery Train:
Images of America in Rock 'N' Roll Music, Greil Marcus describes the magnetism and importance of the story: "It is a story that black America has never tired of hearing and never stopped living out, like whites with their Westerns. Locked in the images of a thousand versions of the tale is an archetype that speaks to the fantasies of casual violence and casual sex, lust and hatred, ease and mastery, a fantasy of style and steppin' high. At a deeper level it is a fantasy of no-limits for a people who live within a labyrinth of limits every day of their lives, and who can transgress them only among themselves."

John Wolford, an urban anthropologist with the Missouri Historical Society, echoes Marcus' thoughts: "This happened right after Reconstruction. Blacks felt like they had some rights and privileges that were granted to them by the Constitution, by Congress, legislation. The sorts of tensions and feelings come out in the stories -- it's folklore, and it comes out in how people express these basic cultural attitudes."

It could be that the time was simply ripe for such a character to arrive in song, that the reason Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons achieved immortality had nothing to do with the incident itself but, rather, with the reality of the moment, a single-bullet zeitgeist that scattered like a dandelion launching its seeds, each sprouting a unique version of the tale. A new freedom was spreading among blacks at the turn of the century, a tiny peephole drilled through the wall of inequality. It manifested itself in many ways, one of which was mentioned along with the reports of the murder: A black men's society called the Colored 400, modeled after a similar society in New York, had formed in St. Louis just three weeks before the shooting, framed for the "moral and physical culture of young colored men." Stagger Lee was a prominent member of the organization, and perhaps he slithered through that peephole only to unleash his furious freedom.

From there the story evolved into a complicated one, one that in its countless variations -- Stagger Lee traveling down to hell and being turned away, Stagger Lee hopping a 40-foot wall to escape, Stagger Lee being captured by 100,000 cops "loaded down with rifles and a great big Gatling gun" -- didn't simply condemn a demonic protagonist as in a morality play but peppered its examination with hints of respect and admiration for his no-holds-barred liberty.

Stagger Lee is the original renegade who doesn't take shit from anybody and will blow away those who dare cross him, even over something as petty as a hat. This persona is strong and ubiquitous in our musical culture a century later, screaming louder now than it did at the time of its rise. Stagger Lee has transformed himself from a third-person subject to a first-person narrator; he's possessing the bodies of men, and his anger is raging: Echoes of Stagger and Billy resonate in KRS-One's rapping: "He reached for his pistol but it was just a waste/'Cos my 9 mm was up against his face." He's Ice Cube: "I got a shotgun, and here's the plot/Takin' niggas out with a flurry of buckshot." He's Tupac: "Fuck with me and get crossed later/The future's in my eyez."

According to Marcus, who visited the site for the first time last year during a stop in St. Louis, how the archetype of Stagger Lee arrived is veiled in mystery: "History is made up of grand forces," he says, "individual will, and chance -- and what it is that makes an incident like the Stagger Lee incident, which in gross terms -- a bar fight -- occurred countless times before and after, stand out, organize all the other incidents around itself -- in other words, what it is that makes an archetype emerge from the stream of ordinary life -- is completely mysterious. Here -- is it the hat, is it the name, and the already pop-culture-mythologized connection to the white Samuel "Stacker" Lee, is it some detail that was present in the story right at the beginning but which is missing now, such as the political context of the event? In other words, since the event happened before but didn't enter history, let alone become a history-making force, which the Stagger Lee legend has, you can fairly say that without this event there would be no comparable archetype in the culture."

The Clash's version of the story is the first account I heard, even though I grew up just 25 minutes from the scene of the crime. The story had to travel a quarter of the way around the world and into the mouths of a bunch of punk-rockers before it made its way back across the Atlantic and into my ears. In 1999, Stagger Lee is for sale as a Grateful Dead Beanie Bear. You can buy one at any Deadhead shop for $10. This Stagger Lee is cute and cuddly, smiles at you; it's named after the Dead song of the same name. The bear doesn't pack a gun, hold a pair of dice or wear a $100 suit. It just lies there, an inanimate object, smiling at you. But the path that leads from the corner of 11th and Delmar and into the eyes of a teddy bear is a direct one, telling the story of an entire musical and historical century -- reverse, o hands of time, reverse! -- back from gangsta renegades to punks, from hippies back to R&B balladeers, back from Mississippi John Hurt's gentle, menacing voice to the frustrations of a culture and, ultimately, back through Billy Lyons' abdomen and into the gun held by "Stack" Lee Sheldon inside Bill Curtis' saloon at the corner of 11th and Morgan ... Delmar ... Convention Plaza.

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