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Forever No. 1: Lloyd Price’s ‘Stagger Lee’

Here, we honor the late Lloyd Price with a look back at his lone No. 1: the exhilarating early rock recording of the well-traveled murder tale "Stagger Lee." 

Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Lloyd Price with a look back at his lone No. 1: the exhilarating 1958 recording of the well-traveled murder tale “Stagger Lee.” 

By the time Lloyd Price — who died on May 3 at age 88 — first heard “Stagger Lee,” the tune had had nearly as many angles as the murder the song depicts. 

In 1895, “Stag” Lee Shelton shot and killed Billy Lyons during an argument in a St. Louis bar. That wasn’t particularly uncommon, but the particulars of the incident — it happened on Christmas night, Shelton was a pimp, Lyons had enraged him by snatching his Stetson-made hat — quickly gave it a mythical cast. Within two years, a “Stack-O-Lee” rag was making its way across Missouri. In 1910, John Lomax heard a Texan version that was concerned with the legal aftermath: the police treat Stag with kid gloves; his girlfriend pays his $10,000 bail. (This rendition was sung by levee workers, which had been Lyons’ occupation.) Ma Rainey’s 1925 single “Stack O’ Lee Blues” — featuring Coleman Hawkins and Fletcher Henderson — posits the man’s death as just desserts for drinking and leeching off women.


Three years later, Mississippi John Hurt issued his own “Stack O’ Lee Blues,” a decidedly more delicate and mournful take. He was fixated on Shelton’s five-dollar hat, the theft of which allegedly precipitated the murder. To Hurt, it was a pathetic rationale for a senseless act. But for other performers, the Stetson established Stack’s flash and fearlessness, a terrifying exercise of free will that roiled St. Louis’s white power structure. (Shelton received two pardons from two separate governors before dying of tuberculosis in 1912.) During the first part of 1950’s two-parter  “Stack-A’Lee” — written and performed by New Orleans singer/pianist Archibald — it is noted that Billy took the Stetson in a dice game. In the second, the police kill Stack, but Stack dethrones the devil. (Call it a draw.) It is this version that Price — born in neighboring Kenner, Louisiana — probably knew best. Like Stack and Billy, he was a gambler. But Price gambled exclusively on himself.

You would too, if your first single — which you wrote before you were old enough to drink — was a smash hit. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” nicked a local DJ’s catchphrase and the progression from Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” and it was enough to get him signed to Art Rupe’s Specialty Records. (Another lucky break: during the recording of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” the Fat Man himself dropped by the studio to see producer Dave Bartholomew — who cajoled Domino into replacing the session pianist, for which the rock ‘n’ roll legend was paid union scale.) Released in 1952, the tune topped Billboard’s R&B Songs chart for seven weeks, crossing into the young Southern white demographic. (Elvis Presley, for one, would perform it at the drop of a hat.)

Price logged four more R&B top 10 hits within a year. Having just turned 20, he was at a cultural peak. Then, as would happen to Presley, the government drafted Price into the Army. Vaguely aware of the talent they had acquired, the Army gave Price a Special Services gig in Korea and — finally — his own band. A high point of his act involved a dramatic staging of “Stagger Lee”. He enlisted men to perform the parts of Shelton and Lyons; he had giant prop dice constructed for the stage. The bit killed.


His time served, Price returned to an altered musical landscape. Two years away will do that, and, ironically, he played a part in altering it. His encouragement led a Georgia entertainer named “Little” Richard Penniman to submit a demo to Specialty, the result of which cracked rock ‘n’ roll wide open. After Little Richard took his first sabbatical from popular music, the label scored with Larry Williams (Price’s cousin, former valet, and a go-to piano player), whose series of raucous singles like “Bony Moronie,” “Slow Down,” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” captivated some notable Liverpudlian teens. There didn’t seem to be much room for Price.

After some perfunctory sessions, he bet on himself again. He bought out the remainder of his Specialty contract and, with the help of West Virginian promoter and one-time numbers runner Harold Logan, founded the KRC label. It was an exceedingly rare step for a Black artist at the time, but Price — who had befriended some lawyers in the service — never expressed any doubts about the move. He found some success fronting a classic New Orleans-style R&B combo, but when KRC’s distributor ABC-Paramount made an offer to join their roster, he accepted.

Again, it was the right move. Ever since his stint in Korea, Price had been plotting out a new sound. A chance encounter with Golden Age pop producer Don Costa (Frank Sinatra, Steve & Eydie) confirmed he was on the right track. With ABC-Paramount’s backing, he brought on a big band and Costa to arrange them. Even more provocatively, he hired the Ray Charles Singers, an all-white group (founded by the longtime Perry Como associate, not the country-soul titan). Still, all of this effort was undertaken for “Just Because,” a perfervid devotional ballad. “Stagger Lee” was the B-side — in interviews, Price would claim that he knocked it out in one take. True or not, it was immediately apparent to the jockeys which side was hotter.

After a scene-setting, doo-wop-indebted intro (“The night was clear/ And the moon was yellow…”), Price stuck close to Archibald’s text: the narrator’s bulldog barking at the gamblers, Billy disputing Stack’s roll and claiming the Stetson as winnings, Stack heading home and returning with a .44. Price had no use for an infernal postscript: Everything before, frankly, was exciting enough. There’s a glee to Lloyd’s storytelling, savoring every detail leading to the infamous end. Cannily, he lets the Singers do the exhorting first: Stagger draws himself up to speak, and they start — crisply, primly — chanting “go, Stagger Lee!” 

It’s no Hurt-like lament. Nor is it a winking tale of comeuppance like Jim Croce’s Price homage, the rollicking 1973 Hot 100 No. 1 “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” And it’s certainly not a nihilistic depiction of a murderer like, say, Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” With the Ray Charles Singers providing cover, Price shouts his encouragement all over the place. “Get out of here, Stag,” he hollers in the fadeout, the blood still pooling on the barroom floor. “Police is coming!”

Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” was sordid and rollicking, a throwback to a rough-and-tumble age with a Black subject who found himself a folk hero in that age and all the others. At its peak, the single was reportedly moving almost 200,000 copies a day. It replaced The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” at pole position of the Hot 100 on February 9, 1959 — staying at the top for four weeks, with an identical penthouse run on the R&B chart. 

For the requisite American Bandstand appearance, Price had to recalibrate the entire story. In his re-recording, gambling becomes arguing; Billy steals Stagger’s date, who goes home to have a real good pout. Lloyd spends the outro encouraging Stag to accept Billy’s apology. And yet, even bowdlerized, the song excites: Sticks Simpkins still steps high behind the kit, and the Singers probably make even more sense in this new context.

In that era between the rises of Sam Cooke and Berry Gordy, Price enjoyed a number of pop hits, most of which employed a similar pop/R&B meld. 1959 saw him hit the Hot 100’s top 5 two more times, with “Personality” — a strutting portrait of degradation that made him “Mr. Personality” for the rest of his life — and the forgettable too-young cut “I’m Gonna Get Married.” A ‘63 Vegas-lounge take on “Misty” was his final pop Top 40 hit. 

But Price always had options: his Double-L label, founded with Logan around this time, introduced a young Wilson Pickett to the world. He operated Lloyd Price’s Turntable Nightclub in New York — at the former address of the legendary Birdland — for a time, then altered the trajectory of boxing when he connected his dear friend Muhammad Ali to a Cleveland numbers runner and aspiring promoter named Don King. After helping promote epochal bouts with George Foreman and Joe Frazier, Price settled in Nigeria for a short while, returning after Muhammadu Buhari’s 1983 military coup.

Ever the businessman, Price bought developments, created a line of food products, and licensed his image for bowling balls. In 1993, he toured Europe with a vintage rock ‘n’ roll lineup that included Little Richard. Price hadn’t really considered the oldies circuit before, possibly because he just wasn’t wired to look backwards. He hadn’t tried to recapture the frantic magic of his only No. 1 hit — what would be the point? There would never be anything quite like it: a leering depiction of a long-ago murder whose effects upended a city and reverberated throughout Black America. Its success may not have been part of Price’s plan, but like any gambler worth remembering, he rode the hot hand.