The historical "Stagger Lee" was Lee Shelton, an African-American pimp living in St. Louis, Missouri in the late 19th century. He was nicknamed "Stag Lee" or "Stack Lee", with a variety of explanations being given for the moniker: he was given the nickname because he 'went "stag"', meaning he was without friends; he took the nickname from a well-known riverboat captain called "Stack Lee"; or, according to John and Alan Lomax, he took the name from a riverboat owned by the Lee family of Memphis called the Stack Lee, which was known for its on-board prostitution. He was well known locally as one of the "Macks", a group of pimps who demanded attention through their flashy clothing and appearance. In addition to these activities, he was the captain of a black "Four Hundred Club", a social club with a dubious reputation.
On Christmas night in 1895, Shelton and his acquaintance William "Billy" Lyons were drinking in the Bill Curtis Saloon. Lyons was also a member of St. Louis' underworld, and may have been a political and business rival to Shelton. Eventually, the two men got into a dispute, during which Lyons took Shelton's Stetson hat. Subsequently, Shelton shot Lyons, recovered his hat, and left. Lyons died of his injuries, and Shelton was charged, tried and convicted of the murder in 1897. He was pardoned in 1909, but returned to prison in 1911 for assault and robbery, and died in incarceration in 1912.
The crime quickly entered into American folklore and became the subject of song as well as folktales and toasts. The song's title comes from Shelton's nickname, "Stag Lee" or "Stack Lee". The name was quickly corrupted in the folk tradition; early versions were called "Stack-a-Lee" and "Stacker Lee"; "Stagolee" and "Stagger Lee" also became common. Other recorded variants include "Stackerlee", "Stack O'Lee", "Stackolee", "Stackalee", "Stagerlee", and "Stagalee".
A song called "Stack-a-Lee" was first mentioned in 1897, in the Kansas City Leavenworth Herald, as being performed by "Prof. Charlie Lee, the piano thumper." The earliest versions were likely field hollers and other work songs performed by African-American laborers, and were well known along the lower Mississippi River by 1910. That year, musicologist John Lomaxreceived a partial transcription of the song, and in 1911 two versions were published in the Journal of American Folklore by the sociologist and historian Howard W. Odum.
Before World War II, it was commonly known as "Stack O'Lee". W.C. Handy wrote that this probably was a nickname for a tall person, comparing him to the tall smokestack of the largesteamboatRobert E. Lee. By the time W.C. Handy wrote that explanation in the 1920s, "Stack O' Lee" was already familiar in United States popular culture, with recordings of the song made by such pop singers of the day as Cliff Edwards.
The version by Mississippi John Hurt, recorded in 1928, is regarded as definitive. In his version, as in all such pieces, there are many (sometimes anachronistic) variants on the lyrics. Several older versions give Billy's last name as "De Lyons" or "Deslile". Other notable pre-war versions were by Duke Ellington (1927), Cab Calloway (1931), and Woody Guthrie (1941).
Prince Buster & The Trojans recorded a ska/reggae version called "Stack-A-Lee" in 1990. It can be found on the Trojan boxed setBeginner's Guide To Ska. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds presented a version of the song on their 1996 album Murder Ballads. This version retakes a street "toast poem" on Stagolee. The song contains much swearing and tells the story from a neutral perspective; Stagger Lee refers to himself as "The Bad Motherfucker." The song also appears to set the story in the 1930s, evident in the opening line "It was back in '32 when times were hard." Australian band Magic Dirt also covered the song in the style of Nick Cave and the Bad Seedsrendition in 2006.