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Tracks Unwrapped

Stack O'Lee Blues

Exploring the stories behind the music

Mississippi John Hurt.jpg

Police officer, how can it be?

You can ‘rest everybody but cruel Stack O’Lee

That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’Lee

Billy de Lyon told Stack O’Lee, “Please don’t take my life,

I got two little babies, and a darlin’ lovin’ wife.”

That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’Lee

Stack O’Lee was a notorious black bandit of the late 1800s who goes by many names. He is Stackolee, Stagolee, Stackalee, ‘Stag’ Lee and Stagger Lee. Wikipedia suggests that he was Lee Shelton or Sheldon, an African American taxi driver and pimp. As far as the song is concerned, 'A song called "Stack-a-Lee" was first mentioned in 1897, in the Kansas City Leavenworth Herald, as being performed by "Prof. Charlie Lee, the piano thumper". They wrote: 'It is understood that Prof. Charlie Lee, the piano thumper, will play Stack-A-Lee in variations at the K.C. Negro Press Association'.

'The earliest versions were likely field hollers and other work songs performed by African-American labourers, and were well known along the lower Mississippi River by 1910. That year, musicologist John Lomax received a partial transcription of the song, and in 1911 two versions were published in the Journal of American Folklore by the sociologist and historian Howard W. Odum'.

The song has seen many different variations but the basic story behind it of Stack O'Lee and Billy Lyons follows through them. Here is an early instrumental version recorded by Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians in 1923, and it became a hit. The composer of this version is credited to 'Ray Lopez'.

Another version was recorded that year by Frank Westphal and His Regal Novelty Orchestra, and Herb Wiedoeft and his band recorded the song in 1924, the year that lyrics were added in a recording of Skeeg-a-Lee Blues, by Lovie Austin. Ma Rainey followed it with a recording of Stack O'Lee Blues in 1925 with Louis Armstrong on cornet (here) and this time the tune is the same as Frankie And Johnny - that goes back to 1904.  In this version the story varies too.


Wikipedia tells this story:

"The historical Stagger Lee was Lee Shelton, an African-American pimp living in St. Louis, Missouri in the late 19th century. He was nicknamed Stag Lee or Stack Lee, with a variety of explanations being given: he was given the nickname because he "went stag", meaning he was without friends; he took the nickname from a well-known riverboat captain called Stack Lee; or, according to John and Alan Lomax, he took the name from a riverboat owned by the Lee family of Memphis called the Stack Lee, which was known for its on-board prostitution."


"He was well known locally as one of the Macks, a group of pimps who demanded attention through their flashy clothing and appearance. In addition to these activities, he was the captain of a black Four Hundred Club, a social club with a dubious reputation.' On Christmas night in 1895, Shelton and his acquaintance William "Billy" Lyons were drinking in the Bill Curtis Saloon. Lyons was also a member of the St. Louis' underworld, and may have been a political and business rival to Shelton. Eventually, the two men got into a dispute, during which Lyons took Shelton's Stetson hat. Subsequently, Shelton shot Lyons, recovered his hat, and left. Lyons died of his injuries, and Shelton was charged, tried and convicted of the murder in 1897'. (There is more about the Four Hundred Club in a postscript to this article here).

In his book The Prostitution Of Women And Girls, Ronald B. Flowers writes: '(Researcher, Joan) Johnson described three classes of pimps from that time: (1) The popcorn pimp, (2) the player pimp and (3) the Mack pimp.


'Popcorn pimps are seen as the least successful type of pimp. Working primarily with teenage prostitutes, they have little money and less roots. These pimps tend to be highly competitive with one another in recruiting girls, mostly runaways. They are the most violent to their stable of girls and have a higher turnover rate compared with more stable, successful pimps. The Player pimp is generally more successful, has a few prostitutes in his stable, and often has one 'special' woman that he lives with. Players tend to be less violent than popcorn pimps, relying more on psychological persuasion to control their girls. According to an expert on the pimp hierarchy, a successful player or 'mid-range' pimp can earn up to $200,000 annually. The Mack pimp is considered the upper class amongst pimps. He usually has a much larger number of prostitutes working for him and has one as his 'lady'. Mack pimps tend to combine street smart with good business sense, investing profits in legitimate investments. This affords most of them a suburban lifestyle and a low profile - making them harder to reach and put out of business.' Listen here to Tyrone Triggs and Larry Thomas with their song Pimps, Players and Macks.

“What care I about you little babies, your darlin’ lovin’ wife?

You done stole my Stetson hat, I’m bound to take your life.”

That bad man, cruel Stack O’Lee

With the forty four

When I spied Billy de Lyon, he was lyin’ down on the floor.

The song was recorded through the 1930s and 1940s with versions by Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. The version by Mississippi John Hurt, recorded in 1928, is regarded as definitive. 'In his version, as in all such pieces, there are many (sometimes anachronistic) variants on the lyrics. Several older versions give Billy's last name as "De Lyons" or "Deslile".' Listen to Mississippi John Hurt's version here.

The song then continued to evolve through the 1950s and 1960s with versions by Pat Boone and several rock bands including Johnny And The Hurricans, Tommy Roe, Bob Dylan, The Clash and The Grateful Dead. Samuel L. Jackson sings Stackolee from this video from the 2007 film Black Snake Moan : (Unedited for language!)

On the jazz front, here is Sidney Bechet with Albert Nicholas with Old Stack O'Lee Blues from 1946  .....  and here is an interesting video of Dr John with the Chris Barber band in concert at The Marquee rocking to New Stack-A-Lee. The band had toured with Dr John during 1981 - 1983 and New Stack-O-Lee was recorded in 1983 for the album Mardi Gras At The Marquee.

Taj Mahal performs it in this video, and of course there are many more that illustrate how a song and a story can evolve.

Lee Shelton was pardoned in 1909, but returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery. He died in prison of tuberculosis in 1912.


In 2007, in that great movie, Honeydripper, Keb' Mo' sings Stack O'Lee which seems a fitting conclusion to this article.

Postscript: The Four Hundred Club

The reference to Shelton being 'a captain with the Four Hundred Club' in St. Louis is interesting. According to the website, 'The Four Hundred Club of St. Louis appears to have taken its name from Ward McAllister, self-appointed arbiter of New York society from the 1860s to the early 1890s. According to him, Four Hundred was the number of people in New York who really mattered; the people who felt at ease in the ballrooms of high society. The Bill Curtis Saloon was the headquarters for the Four Hundred Club. J.C. Covington, financial secretary of the Four Hundred Club, wrote a letter to the St. Louis Star Sayings printed on 29 December, 1895'.

'The Four Hundred Club was organized on December 6, 1895, for the moral and physical culture of young colored men. We contemplate no acts of violence, and as law-abiding citizens and voters we stand ready and willing to protect the laws of our city, State and the United States. Our order was organized with Mr. Will Richmond as president, Robert Lee as secretary and Mr. Lee [Lee Shelton] as captain'.


But on the same website we see written of the Bill Curtis Saloon: 'If there is anything that Morgan street dislikes it is conventionality ... It scorns imitation. It is original or nothing, and has formulated an unwritten social law of its own. Is it not the home of the famous Four Hundred Social Club, and the habitat of the Hon. Bill Curtis, who runs the most extensive chance emporium in North St. Louis? What the late Al McWardister and his followers were to Gotham the Hon. Bill Curtis and the colored 400 are to St. Louis. Happy is this city in the fact that death has withheld its destroying hand from his headquarters and spared to us William and his cohorts. Though the Morgue and the City Hospital are regularly supplied with subjects from his headquarters, his popularity never declines, for it is generally conceded that he is acting as a public benefactor in allowing undesirable members of colored society to be dispatched in his place of business. Not every gentleman would be so accommodating in this respect as the Hon. Bill. Would he permit his floors to be stained with the blood of these social drones if it were not that his great heart is fairly bursting with magnanimity and unselfish zeal in the cause of good government? We trow not'.

In his book Stagolee Shot Billy, Cecil Brown quotes J.C. Covington, Financial Secretary of the Four Hundred Club as saying after Shelton was arrested for Billy Lyons' shooting: 'Mr [Stack] Lee was our captain. We deeply regret the situation into which our unfortunate member and brother has fallen, and he has our heartfelt sympathies, both individually and collectively, and our hope for him is the best.'

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