SONG: Stagger Lee
ARTIST: Lloyd Price
Listen to it here:
Stagger Lee (or Stack Lee, Stag Lee, Stagolee, Lee Shelton) was an actual 19th century American figure of real life and folklore. The song is about the murder of Billy Lyons by the eponymous man on Christmas day, 1895. Legend has it that Stagger got his name from either going “stag” (having no friends); he took the name from a famous riverboat captain Stack Lee, or according to ethnomusicologists the Lomax Brothers, he took the name Stack Lee from an actual riverboat in Memphis known for its onboard prostitution. The story goes that on that fateful night Lee, who was part of a dubious gang of pimps known as the Macks) was drinking and carousing at the local saloon with fellow low life Billy Lyons, when Lyons snatched Lee’s Stetson hat, leading to Lee fatally shooting Lyons. Lee was tried, convicted and incarcerated but paroled in 1909 (he later died in prison for a separate crime).
The song Stack-a-Lee was first mentioned in the Kansas City Leavenworth Herald in 1897, and was likely a ‘field holler’ work song performed by Black labourers in the southern States. By 1910 the song was partially transcribed and in 1911 two versions were published in an American Folklore songbook. The song was first put to tape in 1923 by Waring’s Pennsylvanians and became a hit. It was recorded numerous times throughout the next few decades by such notables as Ma Rainey, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Woody Guthrie.
Lloyd Price recorded his version in 1958 and it hit the top of both the US R&B and pop charts in 1959.
Lloyd Price was born in Kenner, Louisiana on March 9, 1933. Both he and his brother were both musical and he was formally trained on piano and trumpet, and played in his high school’s combo ensemble.
In 1952 the owner of Specialty Records came to New Orleans to record the R&B happening there which had been highly successful for his competitor Imperial Records. He heard Price’s song Lawdy Miss Clawdy and had him record it (with Fats Domino on the piano). The song was a massive hit, but unfortunately none of his other releases for Specialty gained much traction. After his stint in the US Army in Korea Price recorded a series of hits for his new label ABC in the New Orleans sound, including Stagger Lee and Personality. Throughout the rest of his life he continued recording, performing and producing a variety of business ventures, including a Southern soul food line and boxing promotion. Price passed in May 2021 due to complications from diabetes at age 88.
Price sang a ‘cleaner’ version of the song (the friends have an argument instead of one getting murdered) for Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
A new song for me, and I really like it! I don’t think I’ve ever heard this song before, despite it being pretty popular and recorded by a bunch of different artists a bunch of different times. I like that it starts with a recitative to set the mood, and then away we go into the bluesy swing! The band sounds great – good drums, solid horns, decent back up singers (I do love their da-dat da-dat interludes) although their sound is a bit dated to me. I really really like Price’s voice – you can definitely hear its influence on later R&B singers like Wilson Pickett and even Joe Cocker. It’s a little raspy, a little funky, but with plenty of soul. I also really like the melody. It’s just a little more than the standard R&B/boogie woogie offering of the time. As for lyrical content, I struggle a little to understand what he’s saying half the time, but knowing it’s about Stagger Lee murdering his friend, it’s definitely one of those cases of melody not matching the lyrics. But that’s not really a complaint. Fun song!
I’m not sure I’ve heard this song before. What a fun blues tune! It sounds like everyone is going all out, from Lloyd Price to his horn section, and his backup vocalists. I like the strength of Lloyd Price’s voice, and you KNOW I like a good bari sax solo! I could have used a couple more choruses! The drums are actually in the same room as everyone else, which is nice for once, and the piano is waaaaaay in the background. I guess this wouldn’t be considered a murder ballad because it’s too upbeat, but I really like the combination of sort of folksy revenge lyrics and a dirty messy blues tune. The only thing I don’t love is the backup vocalists in this song, mostly because what they’re doing for the most part could be better covered by the horns and drums. All in all, though, this song is a great find!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
One of my personal favourites, Wilson Pickett:
Huey Lewis and the News!
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