It started with a mix tape . . .
go figure.

This month's installment of my Mix tape comes as the result of a completely unrelated mix tape that I made for a photographer friend of mine here in New York City. This particular friend has about thirty years on me, give or take a decade, and undoubtedly knows more than I do about a vast number of things. The blues is not one of them.

About two months ago, this friend was making a mix for a friend of his. The mix was to have a blues theme, and he asked me to make a short list of my favorite blues songs. Being me, instead of a short list, I made a CD featuring twenty or so tunes that were either personal favorites, or representative of an essential artist in the genre.

The mix ranged from The Rolling Stones to the man who's song they took their name from, Muddy Waters, to the man who he called the most important blues man, Robert Johnson. It covered the blues about as thoroughly as possible while being confined to a single disc. 1920's Gospel Blues from the Mississippi Sheiks was represented as was Heavy Metal Blues from AC/DC. The mix was perfect&.and it is not the subject of this month's Mike's Mix Tape.
No, this month's mix tape comes from the solitary question that my friend asked me after listening to the disc.

"Hey Mike. What's the deal with Stack-A-Lee?"

Honestly, I didn't know.

I knew that Mississippi John Hurt had recorded the song in 1928, and Bob Dylan had done a version of it in the early 1990's. I knew that Nick Cave and the Badseeds had done a version with different, fairly vulgar, lyrics, and I knew that The Clash, made mention of a few of the song's characters in the opening lines of their song "Wrong Em Boyo". Other than that, I knew nothing of the song or its origins, which I had always assumed began with John Hurt's version.

I was wrong, but as I admitted, I didn't know. I also didn't know that just two months later, I would consider Stack A Lee to be the quintessential American song.

Stack shot Billy

The story of Stack-A-Lee begins on December 24th 1895 in a poor black neighborhood in St. Louis. One night in a small bar, two men were shooting dice. One of the men was a fairly shady and dangerous character named William Lyons. The other was a now notorious pimp by the name of "Stack" Lee Sheldon. The dice game ended with Billy Lyons winning Stack Lee's prized John B. Stetson hat. The hats were not only insanely expensive at the time, but were also very much a status symbol similar to the gaudy "bling bling" jewelry worn by gangsters (as well as rappers) today. Stack demanded that Billy return his hat, and Billy refused. Stack stormed out, and returned a few minutes later with a .44 Smith and Wesson in his hand.

By some accounts, there was a brief exchange between the men, by others, Stack Lee simply walked in the door, and shot Billy down. By all accounts however, as Billy lay dying, Stack walked over, snatched his hat off Billy's head and said, "Gimmie my hat you mother fucker!" Some say, Stack then shot Billy again.

Sheldon was arrested later that night in another bar/whorehouse in town called The Bucket of Blood. He stood trial for the murder and was found guilty. Contrary to popular belief, Lee Sheldon was neither executed for his crime nor sentenced to 99 years in prison. He spent ten years in jail for murdering Billy Lyons and was released. He died a few years later, while serving a second prison sentence for a separate crime committed after his release.
As I soon learned, there are many other versions of what happened that night in St. Louis, but as far as historians can tell, what I've just told you are the facts of the matter.

Stagger Lee

Songs about the events of that Christmas Eve began to surface almost immediately. The songs, Stagger Lee, Stack-A-Lee, and Stack-O-Lee, all stem directly from the incident. The song's lyrics, like the exact name of its anti-hero changed regularly over the years. The first versions, which predate recorded music by decades were field shouts, sung by cotton pickers throughout the south.

In 1927, jazz singer Ma Rainey sang what is believed to be the first recorded version of the song. In the 78 years since the Ma Rainey version, over 200 artists have recorded either one of the pre-existing songs about Stack Lee, or created their own version of the legend. Stack and Billy have appeared in Jazz songs, Blues songs, Country songs, Rock songs, Soul songs, Punk songs, and Rap songs. There are even several instrumental songs named after them.

The most popular song about Stack Lee Sheldon and Billy Lyons is unquestionably "Stagger Lee" by Lloyd Price. The song, after it was edited slightly to appease Dick Clark, became a #1 hit single in 1959. This version of the song is also, it seems, the most often covered song about that night in 1895. Wilson Picket, Tina Turner, Huey Lewis, Neil Diamond, and many others all do this version of "Stagger Lee."

This month's mix

This months Mix Tape, in case it's not obvious at this point, is a collection of my favorite songs about Stack Lee. Since starting to research Stack-A-Lee two months ago, I have heard close to fifty of the 200 plus songs written about him. I'm aware of, but haven't yet heard Stack Lee songs by Elvis Presley, Dave Van Ronk, Fats Domino, The Beach Boys, Dion and the Belmonts, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.

This mix features my 20 favorite versions of the song to date. I began the mix with two fairly unique versions of Stack-A Lee. The first, is an instrumental Jazz version recorded by Sidney Bechet called "Old Stack A Lee Blues". The second is the exact opposite, a spoken word version, by Bruce Jackson. Next I added the first version of "Stack A Lee" that I ever heard, which was recorded by Bob Dylan. Following Bob's version, I put on the similar version by Mississippi John Hurt that I had incorrectly assumed for years was the original. Staying with the blues, the next several songs are "Stagolee" by Lucious Curtis and Willie Ford, "Stack O Lee" by Champion Jack Dupree, and "Stagger Lee" by Taj Mahal.

The next section of the mix is made up of several versions of what I've come to call, the Lloyd Price version. Adding to the overall count of Stack Lee songs is the fact that Lloyd Price actually recorded two versions of the song. The original "big band" version and the toned down, Dick Clark approved "bandstand version" the version included here is the bandstand version which was the #1 hit single. Following Price are Sleepy LaBeef, Wilson Picket, Tina Turner, Huey Lewis, Bill Haley, Dr. John and Neil Diamond, all doing his version of the song.
Following several of the least original, albeit great all the same, Stack Lee songs comes a quintet of the most original. First up is the longest version of the song that I'm aware of. "Stagger Lee" by the Grateful Dead features a completely original set of lyrics penned by Robert Hunter, and of course a healthy dose of guitar noodling.

Then comes John Holt, who does a version with lyrics similar to the Price version, but does the song as a Reggae tune. Then comes another interesting genre as Billy's Band perform "Stagger Lee" as a rap song, complete with all new lyrics. This version is one of only two that I have heard which contain some of the more off-color lines from the original field songs. Other than the spoken word version at the beginning of my mix, the only other version I've heard which contains lines about anal rape and oral sex, which really were themes in the 1890's versions of the song, is by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; that version is next.

Finally, in what to my knowledge is the most recent Stack Lee song, The Black Keys close out the mix with a song from their 2004 album called "Stack Shot Billy."

Mike D'Ariano

Mike's Mix Tape: June 2005
  Old Stack A Lee Blues
Sidney Bechet from The Best of Sidney Bechet
Bruce Jackson from Get Your Ass In The Water and Swim
  Stack A Lee
Bob Dylan from World Gone Wrong
  Stack O Lee
Mississippi John Hurt from Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings
Lucious Curtis and Willie Ford from Alan Lomax: American Songboo
  Stack O Lee
Champion Jack Dupree from Blues from the Gutter
  Stagger Lee
Taj Mahal from De Ole Folks at Giant Step
  Stagger Lee
Lloyd Price from Lloyd Price Greatest Hits: The Original ABC Paramount Recordings
  Stagger Lee
Sleepy Labeef from Strange Things Happen
  Stagger Lee
Wilson Pickett from In The Midnight Hour: The Best of Wilson Pickett
  Stagger Lee
Tina Turner from 27 Best Hits
  Stagger Lee
Huey Lewis and the News from Four Chords and Seven Years Ago
  Stagger Lee
Bill Haley from The Warner Brothers Years
  Stagger Lee
Dr. John from All By Hisself Live at the Lonestar
  Stagger Lee
Neil Diamond from September Morn
  Stagger Lee
Grateful Dead from Closing of Winterland
  Stagger Lee
John Holt from Anthology: The Tide Is High
  Stagger Lee
Billy's Band from Being Tom Waits
  Stagger Lee
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from Murder Ballads
  Stack Shot Billy
The Black Keys from Rubber Factory
For more information on Stagger Lee, check out Cecil Brown's highly informative book, Stagolee Shot Billy.

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