Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Stagger Lee Shot Billy

The famous blues song, "Stagger Lee", has roots dating back to 1890s St. Louis. Legend has it that there was a fight over a fancy hat in a saloon in the "Deep Morgan" section of the old city, leading to a shooting by a carriage driver named "Stack Lee". "Stack Lee" evolved into "Stagger Lee", and from St. Louis the story travelled southward down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans, where it was passed along from generation to generation through an oral history traditon. The legend continued to grow until it became the basis of the famous song.

A recent book, entitled Stagolee Shot Billy, traces the story from many different perspectives, all starting with the same episode in a St. Louis bar. A novel written by the Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps entitled God Sends Sunday also devotes part of its story to Stack Lee.

As noted below, some historians claim that the original brick row house located across Tucker from the Post Dispatch (the same building recently planned to house the horses for downtown's mounted police patrol), is the home (and former brothel) of the same Stagger Lee.

From the website:

Tourists note

911 N. 12th Street, which was "Stag" Lee Sheldon's house, is still standing, although it was recently boarded up and for sale; it's the only house remaining on the block (directly across from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch building). About 15 years ago, an alderman named Bruce Sommer ran a restaurant there called the Sommer House -- with live music, including old-time performers Cousin Curtis & the Cash Rebates, and blues singer Tom Hall. Tom wasn't aware that he was singing in Stagger Lee's old house.

(Click here for the lyrics to Stagger Lee.)

(Click here for more of the history behind the song, including a story about how the popular rhythm and blues number did not go over well with Dick Clark, the icon of the 50's hit music television program, American Bandstand.)

(Click here for a detailed essay on the legend of Stack O. [Stagger] Lee)


Michael M. said...

Thank you for the story and all the great links. I am interested in the song, too, and I posted about it earlier this year with overlapping, but different links. "Frankie and Albert" also happened downtown.

Rick Bonasch said...


Thanks for your comment. What an interesting post at your blog.

Given your interest in St. Louis history, you'd probably really enjoy reading Arna Bontemps' work.