I think the first time I came across “Stagger Lee” was the remake of “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” by The Clash, followed by Nick Cave’s gleefully obscene version on Murder Ballads. So the idea of this song of gambling and cheating and murder as a #1 hit record in 1959 seemed incredible. And yet it was, for four weeks straight, without being toned down in the least. Self-righteous pessimists may complain about violence in rap music and the decline of propriety in American culture, but never have I heard a song so exuberant about the gratuituous murder of an innocent man. Lloyd Price sides not with poor Billy, the honest gambler with a sick wife and three kids, but Stagger Lee, the sociopath who considers killing a man to be fair if it means keeping his Stetson hat. Price in the song is an observer in the shadows, “standin’ on the corner” (almost certainly up to no good) when his bulldog barks at “the two men who were gamblin’ in the dark.” He sees all this going down and does nothing to interfere, but it’s unclear whether it’s because he wants to keep his head down or if he thinks Billy may deserve it. Price’s description of Billy’s murder in the final stanza is detached, focusing less on his death than the feat of the fatal bullet passing through the bartender’s glass. The backup singers’ cries of “Go Stagger Lee!” only add to the amoral spectacle, as does the jaunty sax solo. It’s exactly what rock and roll should be: shocking and antisocial and completely euphoric. 9
- This is also the first instance on the Hot 100 of the great New Orleans sound that I grew up with and love so much, and was unfortunately ignored in large part by the pop charts. That said, it won’t be too long before we come across another classic slice of NOLA, featuring the man who essentially made the New Orleans beat in the ’60s – but that’s still a couple of years away, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Hit #1 on February 9, 1959; total of 4 weeks at #1
10 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.04% through the Hot 100