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Mississippi John Hurt recorded a notable early version of "Stagger Lee"

"Stagger Lee", also known as "Stagolee", "Stackerlee", "Stack O'Lee", "Stack-a-Lee" and several other variants, is a popular blues folk song based on the murder of William "Billy" Lyons by Stagger Lee Shelton. The version recorded by Mississippi John Hurt in 1928 is considered by some commentators to be definitive, containing as it does all of the elements that appear in other versions.[citation needed]

A cover with different lyrics was a chart hit for Lloyd Price in 1959; Dick Clark felt that the original tale of murder was too morbid for his American Bandstand audience, and insisted that they be changed to eliminate the murder.[1] In this version, the subject was changed from gambling to fighting over a woman, and instead of a murder, the two yelled at each other, and made up the next day. However, it was the original, unbowdlerized, version of Lloyd's performance that reached #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 and was ranked #456 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Contents

History

"Stag O Lee" songs may have predated even the 1895 incident[citation needed], and Lee Shelton may have gotten his nickname from earlier folk songs. The first published version of the song was by folklorist John Lomax in 1910.[2] The song was well known in African American communities along the lower Mississippi River by the 1910s[citation needed].

Before World War II, it was almost always known as "Stack O'Lee"[citation needed]. W.C. Handy wrote that this probably was a nickname for a tall person, comparing him to the tall smokestack of the large steamboat Robert E. Lee[citation needed]. By the time W.C. Handy wrote that explanation in the 1920s, "Stack O' Lee" was already familiar in United States popular culture, with recordings of the song made by such pop singers of the day as Cliff Edwards.

In Hurt's version, as in all such pieces, there are many (sometimes anachronistic) variants on the lyrics. Several older versions give Billy's last name as "De Lyons" or "Deslile".

Notable versions

  • A version by The Fabulous Thunderbirds can be found on the Porky's Revenge soundtrack (1985). Johnny Otis's band Snatch and the Poontangs perform a version in which the violence is matched by the sex.
  • The Grateful Dead recorded a version of the tale which focuses on the fictionalized hours after the death of "Billy DeLion", when Billy's wife Delia tracks down Stagger Lee in a local saloon and "she shot him in the balls" [3] in revenge for Billy's death.
  • Elton John's 1976 "Blue Moves" album included the song "Shoulder Holster", about a vengeful woman out to kill her cheating ex. The song begins with the lyrics "It was just like Frankie and Johnny / And it was just like Stagger Lee".
  • The 1979 album London Calling by The Clash includes a ska version (a cover of a song by the Jamaican rocksteady group The Rulers) titled "Wrong 'Em Boyo", in which Stagger Lee is explicitly the hero and Billy the villain.[4] Another variant by Austin blues artist Steve James retells the story from Stagger Lee's perspective, as the underprivileged child of a prostitute and a steamboat worker, and like the Clash's version, Billy is not innocent.
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, by contrast, present an even more violent and homoerotic version of the song "Stagger Lee" on their 1996 album Murder Ballads. This version retakes a street "toast poem" on Stagolee [5]. Toasts are 'pre-rap' poems and stories especially popular among those in "the life" and among prisoners. The song contains much swearing and shows the story from a neutral perspective; Stagger Lee refers to himself as "The Bad Motherfucker." The song also appears to set the story in the 1930s. This is evident in the opening line "It was back in '32 when times were hard."
  • More recently, the Black Keys recorded a song entitled "Stack Shot Billy" on their 2004 album Rubber Factory. In 2005, Chris Whitley and Jeff Lang recorded their own arrangement of the song, called "Stagger Lee", ultimately released on their 2006 CD Dislocation Blues.
  • A version of Staggolee performed by Pacific Gas & Electric was included on the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino's film Death Proof, the second portion of the 2007 double-feature Grindhouse. In the 2007 film Black Snake Moan, Samuel L. Jackson's character sings a boastful version of the song from Stagger Lee's perspective, titled "Stackolee". This version is based on R. L. Burnside's rendition which can be heard on the album Well, Well, Well. Blues musician Keb' Mo' performs his version of Stack O Lee in a scene from the 2007 film Honeydripper.

Other artists who recorded the song

Preceded by
"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" by The Platters
Billboard Hot 100 number-one single (Lloyd Price version)
February 9, 1959 - March 2, 1959 (4 weeks)
Succeeded by
"Venus" by Frankie Avalon
Preceded by
"Try Me" by James Brown & The Famous Flames
Billboard Hot R&B Sides number-one single
February 9, 1959 - March 2, 1959 (four weeks)
Succeeded by
"It's Just a Matter of Time" by Brook Benton

References

External links








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