The Real-Life Story of Lloyd Price's 'Stagger Lee'

Frank Mastropolo

A 19th Century Murder Inspired the 1958 Hit
Photo byABC-Paramount / Sparton

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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Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022. He is also the author of the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 writer and producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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