A 19th Century Murder Inspired the 1958 Hit
In 1952, Lloyd Price was a teen enjoying huge success on the rhythm & blues charts with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” But two years later Uncle Sam called and Price was drafted into the Army. Because of his musical talent, he was transferred to the Special Service Division in Korea, where he entertained officers.
Tired of performing standards like “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” Price recalled a song he’d first heard his father and uncles sing growing up in Louisiana. Price couldn’t understand the lyrics then because of their patois.
Price later heard the song again, performed by Archibald, a New Orleans barrelhouse pianist. The song was “Stack-A’Lee,” a 1950 R&B hit. Now Price could make sense of the lyrics.
"Stack-A'Lee" by Archibald and His Orchestra
“Stack-A’Lee” has a history stretching back to the late 19th century. It is a traditional folk song that tells the story of the murder of William “Billy” Lyons by Lee Shelton, also known as Stag Lee, in a barroom fight over a hat.
On December 28, 1895 the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat reported the story. Note that Shelton’s name is misspelled as Sheldon.
“Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. The discussion drifted to politics and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon drew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen…
“When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away. He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee.”
In Korea, Price added his own introduction to the old standard: “The night was clear and the moon was yellow and the leaves came tumbling down.” Price called his version “Stagger Lee.” Soldiers would perform the song as a play, acting out the lyrics.
"Stagger Lee" by Lloyd Price
At the end of his hitch Price returned to New Orleans and resumed his recording career. Price chose “Stagger Lee” as the B-side for a single called “You Need Love,” released in 1958 to little success.
“A guy from Seattle, Washington, a DJ called up and said, ‘You’re on the wrong side,’ said Price. “I will never forget, it was snowing that day. Larry Newton, the vice president and sales manager called me and said, ‘We’re on the wrong side and we gotta turn the record over.’ I said, ‘No, no, “You Need Love” is the greatest song, you can’t turn it over, just stay with it.’
"You Need Love" by Lloyd Price
“So he called me back, I said, ‘OK, turn it over.’ That afternoon they had 200,000 orders for ‘Stagger Lee.’ Unbelievable.”
“Stagger Lee” went on to sell over a million copies and top the pop and R&B charts. Price, 88, died in 2021.
Mastropolo is the author of New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, one of Best Classic Bands’ Best Music Books of 2022, and Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.
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