From THE ST. LOUIS GLOBE DEMOCRAT, 1895: "William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o'clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon, a carriage driver. Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. 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 withdrew 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. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as 'Stag' Lee."
Billy Lyons died from his wounds. ‘Stag’ Lee Sheldon was tried for his murder, his first trial ending in a hung jury. He was found guilty in a second trial and served his time. He was released and lived out his life in obscurity, dying sometime before 1920.
While the story of ‘Stag’ Lee and Billy Lyons may not have been an exceptional storie, the song that it inspired has been performed and recorded by a wide variety of artists, in an equally wide variety of styles for the past 80 years, and will probably be recorded for another 80 years.
The story and song traveled down the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans, where it took on a life of its own. The scoundrels name variously became ‘Stag’ Lee, Stagger Lee, Stag-O-Lee, Stagolee, Stackolee, Stack-A-Lee, and even Stack-O-Dollars, and the song traveled around the country. The words to this song were first published in 1910 by John Lomax under the title “Stagolee”. One of the first recordings was by Frank Hutchison in 1927. I’ve posted many times about Frank Hutchison, the white coal miner in Logan, West Virginia. Hutchison was an incredible guitarist who learned a lot of his styling from a crippled black musician and neighbor named Bill Hunt. Hutchison recorded the song he titled “Stackalee” in 1927.
The song was recorded by many blues and Old Time artists over the years. The New Orleans R&B artist known as Archibald (Leon T. Gross) had a hit with the song in 1950 followed by Lloyd Price, who recorded the song on the flip side of his minor hit "You Need Love". DJs discovered "Stagger Lee" on the other side and started playing that. The song took off and in no time was number one on the charts, selling over 200,000 copies a day.
The song has been recorded by a wide variety of artists including; The inmates at Angola Prisoner, the Grateful Dead, Mike Bloomfield, Pat Boone, Roy Bookbinder, James Brown, Beck, Cab Calloway, Lonnie Donegan, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Doc Watson, ...
Update: I've fixed the link to the list of artists that have recorded this song. It can be found HERE.