Following the Dutch/Belgian tour I recorded a three track EP at ‘deep’ recording studios. The producer Mark Rose is something of an expert in authenticity so for the third track, ‘Staggerlee’, where the lyrics include dialogue between Staggerlee and Billy, for Staggerlee’s speech Mark put the vocals through a valve set built in 1948. There is a definite edge added through this old device, I hope you’ll agree that the effect works OK.
This track (as well as tracks 1 and 2) is on the website – you can hear it on the page headed ‘Music’.
The song has several different versions, some suggest the shooting was over Staggerlee’s feeling cheated in a dice game, some suggest that the mention of a Stetson hat (as opposed to any other type) was merely to lend the song a ‘white’ element. The publicised police report at the time states specifically that the shooting was over Billy’s snatching the hat from Staggerlee and refusing to return it on the night of 27th December 1895.
The first recorded version was by Herb Wiedoeft and his band back in 1924. Lloyd Price had a huge #1 hit with it on both sides of the Atlantic in 1959. Lloyd Price is partly accredited with writing the song, but given that the original version was written before he was born I’d guess he may just have modified the lyrics a bit.
A story appearing in the St. Louis, Missouri Globe-Democrat in 1895 says:
William Lyons, 25, coloured, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, 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 (Staggerlee), also coloured. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. Lyons and Staggerlee were friends and were talking together. The discussion drifted to politics and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Staggerlee’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return.
Lyons refused, and Staggerlee withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. He was removed to the City Hospital.
At the time of the shooting the saloon was crowded with negroes.
(**I think some now forgotten political point is being made here – there is nothing to suggest that the crowd being African Americans had any bearing whatsoever on the shooting – ja)
Sheldon (Staggerlee) is a carriage driver and lives at 911 North Twelfth Street. 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. Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee aka ‘Staggerlee’.
Saint Louis Globe-Democrat, December 28, 1895
The newspaper article makes reference to the Chestnut Street Police Station.
The Bill Curtis Saloon was located in the middle of what was then St. Louis’ thriving vice district. The saloon was located at 1101 Morgan Street (now Convention Plaza, once known as Delmar).
Billy Lyons died from his wounds, and Staggerlee was tried for this killing.
The first trial ended in a hung jury amidst major political controversy.
He was convicted in the second trial and he died in prison in 1912, of tuberculosis.
The picture is of Gratiot Street prison at Sixth and Chestnut in St Louis around the time of the end of the Civil War – the Chestnut Street Police Station that dealt with the Staggerlee case moved to the Four Courts building shortly after the event.
About four years later, this is where the legendary song “Frankie and Johnny” originated.
Most people don’t know that the song is based on a true story about feuding black lovers
and Frankie ended up killing Johnny.
The spot marks the relative location of an apartment complex that stood at 212 Targee Street in Saint Louis, Missouri. It was at this location that 22-year-old Frankie Baker shot and killed 17-year old Albert Britt on October 15, 1899. The shooting apparently was over another woman, Alice Pryor. The murder was the basis for the ballad, “Frankie and Albert“, (nothing to do with me dudes! – ja) ‘though the song had several of the facts wrong.
That song changed overtime to the better known name, “Frankie and Johnny”.