Before being captured and immortalized on tape by artists such as Lloyd Price, Nick Cave or The Clash (as Wrong ‘Em Boyo), the history of Stagger Lee goes way back. The folk ballad was inspired by real-life criminal Lee Shelton, who became a folklore figure after murdering Billy Lyons in 1895. The documented story goes that the two got into a drunken, heated argument culminating in the latter attempting to steal the former’s hat. Shelton then shot Lyons on the spot and became what Wikipedia describes as “the embodiment of a tough black man; one who is sly, streetwise, cool, lawless, amoral, potentially violent, and who defies white authority.”
The events of the story vary with each recorder version of Stagger Lee. Nick Cave added more descriptive violence to the tale, as well as another victim in the form of the barkeeper. In his 1958 version that topped the charts the following year, Lloyd Price sets the killing right after Stagger Lee loses all of his money as well as his hat in a gambling game with Billy Lyons. Price, now a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, had multiple other hits in the 1950s such as the rock ‘n’ roll number Lawdy Miss Clawdy (famously covered by Elvis), Personality (which earned him the nickname Mr. Personality), and I’m Gonna Get Married.
Stagger Lee spent 4 consecutive weeks at number one in Billboard Top 100 before being dethroned by Frankie Avalon’s Venus.