The crime at the center of the legendary folk song “Stagger Lee” is one that goes all the way back to Christmastime of 1895. The song has been recorded by everyone from Amy Winehouse and Wilson Picket to the Grateful Dead and Hugh Laurie, but each version tells roughly the same story. In fact, there are 427 versions of the song carefully cataloged, for anyone looking for a deep dive.
It all began when a man named William “Billy” Lyons was shot to death in a saloon in St. Louis, Missouri. The story goes that Lyons had swiped the Stetson hat belonging to one “Stag” Lee Shelton. Shelton was known as a carriage driver to polite society, but also worked as a pimp — and he loved his Stetson.
According to some reports from the time, Lyons and Shelton were friends, and had been drinking in the Bill Curtis Saloon and talking politics on that long-ago Christmas. In the heat of the disagreement, some reports say that Shelton damaged Lyons’ beloved black bowler hat. Lyons demanded that Shelton pay to replace it, and when Shelton refused, Lyons swiped the hat from Shelton’s head as payment. When Shelton demanded that it be returned, and Lyons declined, Shelton pulled out a pistol and shot Lyons in the stomach. Shelton is said to have grabbed his hat and walked away, basically leaving Lyons to die. Soon after, Shelton was arrested, while Lyons was taken for medical treatment. Lyons did not survive his injuries.
Shelton went to trial for murder in the summer of 1896, but the jury was unable to agree on a verdict. Shelton’s second trial reportedly started in October 1897. That trial resulted in the jury taking only two hours to find him guilty, and Shelton was sentenced to 25 years in jail. He didn’t spend those 25 years behind bars, however, because Governor Joseph Wingate Folk pardoned him in 1909.
Despite having been pardoned, Shelton died in jail, imprisoned for a later crime over another argument. He passed away behind bars in 1912.
“The Ballad of Stagalee,” as one version of the song is known, however, had already become a work song for workers on the river freighters in Texas. Every interpretation of the song has its own minor variation on the telling of the story, but the tale of Shelton and Lyons at the heart of the story remains the same.
Here is Hugh Laurie (yes, that Hugh Laurie, none other than House himself) recording the old ballad for the limited-edition release of his 2013 album Didn’t It Rain.
Here we have a vintage version by the legendary Wilson Pickett:
Some claim that Mississippi John Hurt’s “Stack O’ Lee Blues” from 1928 is the definitive version:
But it was Lloyd Price who scored a #1 hit on the Billboard charts in 1959 with the song:
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Main photo: William Lyons death certificate, Lloyd Price LP cover