Killer Blues to Install Headstones at the Graves of Stagger Lee, Milton Sparks This Weekend

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Killer Blues to Install Headstones at the Graves of Stagger Lee, Milton Sparks This Weekend
Illustration by Timothy Lane

What prompted the Stagger Lee project?

Any blues enthusiast knows the story of cruel old "Stagger Lee," who shot Billy Lyons during an argument over a Stetson hat. The story song has been recorded over 400 times in a plethora of variations and styling by legendary artists such as Ma Rainey, Mississippi John Hurt, Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan. Lloyd Price's version sold a million copies and topped the R&B charts, as well as the pop Charts in 1959. Although Shelton himself was not a musician, the events that transpired on that fateful Christmas Eve in 1895 made a significant historical impact on American music. Therefore, we felt compelled to honor his historical contribution by providing him a headstone.

Stagger Lee wasn't necessarily a blues musician. In fact, he was a seedy pimp. Have you received any backlash for dedicating a project to him?

We definitely discussed the possibilities of the scrutiny that might come with honoring the life of a convicted murderer, but so far we haven't received any backlash. As aforementioned, Shelton's story-turned-song had a significant impact on American music and American folklore. While we respect the opinions of the public, we made the decision to follow through with the project and honor his historical contribution.

How much contact and input (script, design, etc) do you receive from the families of the figures whom you are making headstones for?

Unfortunately, many times we are unable to locate the families of our recipients. However, when the families are involved, we always respect any of their wishes. For example, Eddie King's son "Rumpy" passed away within days of his legendary father, and they were buried together. King's widow requested that we honor the life of Rumpy on the marker, and without question we obliged.

Sunday's ceremony is open to the public, and it will take place at 2 p.m. at the historic Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale. Due to overgrowth the exact locations of the burial spots of both Sparks and Shelton are unreachable. Therefore, the Killer Blues Headstone Project has partnered with the nonprofit Friends of Greenwood to create a memorial garden near the cemetery's entrance, where the headstones will be placed. For information regarding the ceremony, contact Aaron Pritchard at 314-775-6953 or [email protected]. To learn more about the Killer Blues Headstone Project's past or future endeavors please visit www.killerblues.net.

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