Anyone who’s ever listened to an oldies radio has probably heard the story of Stagger Lee, as performed by Lloyd Price. In the song, Stagger Lee loses his money and “brand new Stetson hat” in a dice game with a man named Billy. He then proceeds to kill Billy, despite the latter’s begging and pleading. What most casual music fans don’t realize is that Price’s song is not the first or last musical version of Stagger Lee’s tale.
The events portrayed in Price’s song are based on an actual murder reported in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in December 1895. According to the article, “Stag” Lee Shelton murdered William Lyons after Lyons stole Shelton’s hat during a political argument. However, it is likely that Stagger Lee existed as a figure of African-American folklore before St. Louis event. A Mississippi bluesman named Charles Hatler claims that he wrote the first Stagger Lee song in 1895, and not all songs and stories about Stagger Lee mention the murder of Lyons. This has led some experts to propose that Shelton gave himself the nickname “Stag” to associate himself with the Stagger Lee of folklore.
The Stagger Lee of early blues songs was an anti-heroic “badman” figure who sold his soul to the Devil in return for a magical Stetson hat that made him invulnerable. Because he could not be killed, Stagger Lee was free to take whatever he wanted, usually from his peers in the black community. Despite his evil ways, Stagger Lee was respected in the black community because even the (white) authorities were afraid to tangle with him.
During the civil rights era, Stagger Lee became a role model for black men. Bobby Seale, for example, once identified himself and other civil rights leaders (including Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver) as “Stagger Lee” figures. James P. Hauser traces this evolution from “badman” to civil rights hero directly to Price’s version of the song. Though Price’s “Stagger Lee” is based on an earlier song by Leon T. “Archibald” Gross, Hauser describes how subtle changes in the song altered the character. The most important of these changes is the line “Stagger Lee threw 7, Billy swore that he threw 8.” This single addition transforms Stagger Lee from a sore loser who murders his opponent to a wronged man who gets revenge after being cheated. Starting with the Price version of the song, Billy Lyons—a black man in the early versions—came to be identified as a white man, and therefore an oppressor of blacks.
Stagger Lee has appeared in songs by over 200 artists, from Bob Dylan to The Clash. While many artists simply cover the Price version of the song, the majority create original versions, often with new themes and political subtext. For example, The Grateful Dead put a feminist spin on the story by having Billy Lyon’s wife take her revenge on Stagger Lee. The sheer number and range of artists who have chosen to record Stagger Lee songs makes it unlikely that the legend will fade any time soon.