Two Men Were Gambling

Billy Lyons was murdered by a St. Louis, Missouri pimp and gambler named “Stag” Lee Shelton in a saloon on Christmas Eve in 1895.  The lyrics for this traditional song were written by Ray Lopez and they were published in 1911, and it was first recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians.  The story in this song has drifted from the facts somewhat over the course of its many lives but it has lasted over 100-plus years.  A few days after this murder the headline, “Shot in Curtis’s Place”, ran in the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat.  It began, “William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis by Lee Sheldon, also colored.”  Billy Lyons and “Stag” Lee Sheldon were drinking when they got into an argument over politics, and Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head after he was dead and coolly walked away.

Subsequent musical renditions of this story would depict the dispute as one over gambling, but all versions preserved the detail of “Stag” Lee Sheldon’s wearing a Stetson hat.  John B. Stetson was born in 1830 to a “master hat maker”, Stephen Stetson, of Orange, New Jersey.  He invented what is now thought of as the classic Stetson about 1850, a large hat with a broad brim and a high crown for protection from the sun and rain.  Lyons died of his injuries, and Shelton was charged, tried and convicted of the murder in 1897.  He was paroled in 1909, but returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery after breaking into a man’s home, and murdering him.  By 1912, Shelton received yet another pardon, apparently due to political pressure.  Before he could be released, the infamous Stack-O-Lee died in prison of tuberculosis.

The song which has several different names and different lyrics has been recorded by many artists, from Ma Rainey, Duke Ellington, Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Woody Guthrie, Lloyd Price, Professor Longhair, The Black Keys, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Wilson Picket, Taj Mahal, Fats Domino, Bob Dylan, Dr Hook, Cab Calloway, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, The Clash, Beck D. Hansen, Elvis Presley, Samuel L. Jackson, Ike Turner, the Isley Brothers, the Grateful Dead and a great many others.  In 1910, legendary Library of Congress musicologist John Lomax received a partial transcription of what was called “The Ballad of Stagalee”, from a woman in Texas.  She claimed that this song was sung by the Negroes on the levee while they were loading and unloading the river freighters.

In 1958, Lloyd Price released his version called ‘Stagger Lee’, which exploded in popularity and became #1 on the Billboard Pop Charts and his first million seller.  The original version included raunchy lyrics about Mr. Lee and Billy playing cards in an alley. A toned-down version was released later, but when Price was encouraged by Dick Clark, so he could performed the song on American Bandstand, he agreed to re-cut the lyrics, removing all offensive references to violence.  This was the first rock ‘n’ roll record to hit #1 despite being censored.  ‘Stagger Lee’ doesn’t sound like a murder ballad, it’s a total blast of a song, a spirited New Orleans rumble with a honking sax solo that includes joyous oooh-wah backing singers chanting, “Go, Stagger Lee!”.  Price conjures up a clear night with a yellow moon and then all hell breaks loose in this Louisiana swamp blues song, as seven quick horn blasts and vocals (da-da da-da da-da da) shatter the calm.

West Virginia songwriter Harold E. Logan often collaborated with Lloyd Price and he arranged the music for this song. Price’s longtime partner Harold Logan was born in 1924 and murdered in May of 1969 and the case was never solved. Harold Logan formed L and L Records (Lloyd and Logan) in Detroit and they put out Wilson Pickett’s first hits.  Logan got shot with two bullets in the same hole, smack between the eyes at the Turntable Club in NYC.  Price was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2010.  On June 16, 2019, a facebook hoax reported his death, but thankfully, Mr. Personality is still alive and well.

The night was clear
And the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumbling down

I was standing on the corner
When I heard my bulldog bark
He was barkin’ at the two men who were gamblin’
In the dark

It was Stagger Lee and Billy
Two men who gambled late
Stagger Lee threw seven
Billy swore that he threw eight
Stagger Lee told Billy
I can’t let you go with that
You have won all my money and my brand new
Stetson hat

Stagger Lee went home
And he got his forty-four
Said, I’m goin’ to the barroom just to pay that
Debt I owe

Stagger Lee went to the barroom
And he stood across the barroom door
He said, nobody move and he pulled his

Stagger Lee, cried Billy
Oh, please don’t take my life
I’ve got three little children and a very
Sickly wife

Stagger Lee shot Billy
Oh, he shot that poor boy so bad
‘Till the bullet came through Billy and it broke the bar
Tender’s glass

Written for Song Lyric Sunday where the prompt is Cards/Dice/Gamble/Lose/Win.

14 thoughts on “Two Men Were Gambling

  1. I love the background info on this song. Lots of people have covered. I need to hear a few of those versions, including Dylan’s and The Black Keys. Stetson is what Raylan Givens wears on, “Justified” and wears well.

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