Vinson: Legend of the Notorious 'Stagger Lee': the Bob Dylan Factor

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It was Stagger Lee and Billy
Two men who gambled late
Stagger Lee threw a seven
Billy swore that he threw eight
Stagger Lee told Billy
"I can't let you go with that
You have won all my money and my brand new Stetson hat"

(Lyrics for the song "Stagger Lee," written in 1958 by Lloyd Price and Harold Logan)

The first time I recall hearing the song "Stagger Lee" was in the early '70s. It was a cover performed by pop-rock singer Tommy Roe, known for Billboard hits such as "Shelia," "Sweet Pea," "Dizzy," etc. (NOTE: "Stagger Lee" has been covered by hundreds of artists.)

For many decades, I categorized "Stagger Lee" as a mere 'bubblegum' rock tune: something up-beat I enjoyed listening to, but not a song I would pay to hear on a jukebox! Now, enter the one-and-only Bob Dylan, arguably the most influential pop songwriter of the past 50 years. Bubblegum rock crossing paths with a Nobel Prize-winning (for literature, 2016), Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee such as the near-divine Bob Dylan--what?! Just bear with me, and it all should come together.

As one version of the legend goes ...

Lee Shelton, African American, was born in Texas in 1865. As of 1895, Shelton was residing in St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked as a pimp and gambler. However, Shelton was no ordinary, street-corner pimp. On the contrary, he was a member of the 'Macks,' a group of kingpin St. Louis panderers who made big money, dressed nattily, had clout, were well known, and ruthlessly demanded respect.

Unsurprisingly, Shelton ran a fancy brothel called the Modern Horseshoe Club. It has been written Lee Shelton earned the nickname 'Stagolee'/'Stack-O-Lee' because he always went 'stag,' implying he neither had many male friends nor did he showcase any of his working girls in public.

It was Christmas Day 1895, and Stagolee Shelton was cruising the vice area of St. Louis, feeling exuberant and 'putting on the dog': "His pointy-toed shoes were tricked out with spats and tiny mirrors that shot off shards of reflected lamplight with each stride. He wore a canary-colored shirt, crimson vest, striped slacks and a black overcoat. He gripped a gleaming black cane, and a gigantic cigar left a cloud of blue smoke in his wake. The ensemble was topped by a fine Stetson hat made of milky white felt" (source: New York Daily News, 'The Ballad of Stagger Lee').

On that fateful Christmas Day 1895, Stagolee wandered into Bill Curtis's saloon, located at Eleventh and Morgan Streets in downtown St. Louis. At the bar sat William "Billy" Lyons, 25-years-old, and an acquaintance of Stagolee. Lyons also was a known member of the black St. Louis underworld and had direct connections to heavyweight criminals.

At this point it is key to note a particular socio-politico aspect: St. Louis had a large black population. Shelton was Democrat, and Lyons was Republican. Each courted black voters, and each was in a position to sway black voters, which was an ongoing bone of contention.

So, after entering Bill Curtis's joint, Stagolee Shelton took a stool at the bar beside Billy Lyons. Being it was a festive mood, Christmas Day, sharing cocktails was par for the norm. However, after exchanging some pleasantries and throwing several drinks down the hatch, the conversation turned from benign chit-chat to nasty politics!

As the argument escalated, Lyons snatched the Stetson hat off Stagolee's head. Stagolee demanded Lyons give back the Stetson. Lyons refused, which was a blatant display of disrespect. A man of Stagolee's standing had no option other than to take action. Stagolee pulled out his revolver and shot Billy in the gut. After reaching down and reclaiming his Stetson hat from the mortally wounded Lyons, Shelton casually strolled out of Curtis's bar. Though the song says gambling was the issue, it could've been politics was at the core of the altercation.

Lyons eventually died from the gunshot injury. Shelton was convicted for the Lyons' shooting in 1897, sentenced to prison, and was paroled in 1909. Shelton died in prison in 1912, having been incarcerated, again, for a crime unrelated to the Lyons' shooting. And thus was born the folklore legend, transforming over the years from Lee Shelton to Stagolee to, ultimately, Stagger Lee.

So, what is the 'Bob Dylan factor'? I recently read a book titled "Chronicles: Volume One," a hip account of Dylan's life. On pages 235-236, Dylan states: "I had already landed in a parallel where actions and virtues were old style and judgmental things came falling out of their heads. A culture with Stagger Lees, Pretty Pollys and John Henrys--an invisible world that towered overhead with walls of gleaming corridors."

If I hadn't read Bob Dylan's book "Chronicles: Volume One," I doubt I would've researched
Stagger Lee. And wouldn't you know Dylan did a cover of the song "Stagger Lee" on his
1993 album "World Gone Wrong!"

Pretty cool, huh?

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Mike Vinson
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