The story of Stagger Lee

The story of Stagger Lee

How one murder in 1895 has lived on in music mythology for decades.

Image for post

Growing up listening to rock and blues, I started noticing a recurring name in a lot of songs by wildly different artists.

Musical covers are nothing unusual, especially in the early days of pop when playing covers was more socially acceptable than playing original material.

But even to this day, one name, and the legend that goes with it shows up in contemporary music every so often: Stagger Lee, or a variation of that name.

The real historical details are scant. A man named Lee Shelton shot and killed a man named Billy Lyons in a bar in St Louis, Missouri in 1895, reportedly over the theft of Shelton?s Stetson hat.

Image for postFrom here.

?Stag? Lee became a popular figure in African-American folklore, a symbol of badassery who lived by his own rules. Over time, the legend has also been appropriated, reshaped and retold by musicians, poets, graphic novelists and others.

You can read a more comprehensive history of Stagger Lee here, and learn about his cultural significance here. Below, I?ve chosen 10 different versions of the song. There are over 400 in existence, so this is list is subject to change?

Mississippi John Hurt: Stack ?O Lee (1928)

Earlier recordings do exist, but this version of the tale from 1928 is often considered to be the ?definitive? one.

The Isley Brothers: Stagger Lee (1963)

Giving the song their signature rhythm and blues treatment, here?s The Isley Brothers? version from their album, Twisting and Shouting.

Cab Calloway: Stack O? Lee Blues (1931)

A smattering of Cab?s jazzy, scat vocals accompany the retelling of the famous tale in this early version.

The Clash: Wrong?em Boyo (1979)

For a post-punk, ska-infused twist, give this one from the seminal London Calling a listen.

Hugh Laurie: Stagger Lee (2013)

It never ceases to amaze me that Hugh Laurie can be a very silly comedian, a serious, gritty actor, and a talented blues musician all at once.

Ike & Tina Turner: Stagger Lee & Billy (1965)

A great example of the subtle variations to the story that have emerged over the years.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Stagger Lee (1996)

A sparse, dark cover that was right at home on Nick Cave?s macabre 1996 album, Murder Ballads.

Pacific Gas And Electric: Staggolee (1970)

A surprisingly cheerful-sounding version that also appeared on Quentin Taratino?s Death Proof soundtrack in 2007.

Samuel L Jackson: Stackolee (2006)

A personal favourite. Jackson learned to play the guitar for his role in the movie, Black Snake Moan, and his sweary, no-nonsense, ballsy blues version is a fitting tribute to the legend of Stagger Lee.

The Black Keys: Stack Shot Billy (2004)

Another reinterpretation of the original tale, the blues duo released their version on 2004?s Rubber Factory.

And the ultimate moral of the story?

Never mess with a man?s hat.


No Responses

Write a response