Remembering Lloyd Price, and the Strange Wild Tale of ‘Stagger Lee’
Lloyd Price is the only artist I remember who hired a major New York public relations firm to lobby for his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It worked. He was inducted in 1998.
Oh, okay, he very likely would have been inducted anyhow, because Price, who died Thursday at the age of 88, was more important than most rock ’n’ roll history tells us.
Hiring a lobbyist wasn’t self-delusion. It was more like moving perception into line with achievement.
If he had done nothing else, Lloyd Price’s 1958 version of the folk ballad “Stagger Lee” would stand today as maybe the most hard-core record ever to hit №1 on the rock ’n’ roll charts.
The hip-hop gangstas who came along a generation later had nothing on “Stagger Lee.” But more on that in a minute.
Besides being a fine singer and a remarkable showman, Price was an entrepreneur and a smart businessman in a field where, for understandable reasons, too many talented artists are neither.
Price grew up loving music in Louisiana, which is a great place for that passion. He played trumpet and piano, sang in the church choir and by the time he was high school age he had a combo doing live gigs on local radio station WBOK.
He also picked up a side hustle writing jingles for the station and eventually he fleshed out one of those jingles — there wasn’t much fleshing involved — into “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”
It was picked up by Specialty Records and at 19 Price had himself a №1 R&B hit — with an assist to Dave Bartholomew’s Band, featuring Fats Domino on piano.
The follow-ups had less success and in 1954 Price started a two-year hitch in the Army. When that ended, he had to figure out how to restart his music career.
He didn’t just want a record deal. He wanted to control his music. Revolutionary as that concept sounds for a Southern black R&B artist without much market clout, he teamed up with a hard-nosed friend named Harold Logan to form their own music publishing company and record label, KRC.
KRC’s only real asset was Price, and things were slow until ABC Paramount agreed to distribute his first post-Army single, “Just Because.”
It was a good record, layering a classic New Orleans shuffle beat over a melody adapted from Verdi’s Rigoletto, and it became a modest hit, rising to №29 on the pop charts and №3 on the R&B charts in 1957.
Eighteen months later, after a few more commercial misfires, Price and Logan reworked “Stagger Lee” into a №1 hit.
He followed it with the great “Where Were You On Our Wedding Day,” a song better appreciated today than at the time, and his next two singles, “Personality” and “I’m Gonna Get Married,” both made the top three on the pop chart.
None of these hits was transient, forgettable pop. They were churning, rumbling, raucous, get-up-out-of-your-chair records that 60 years later sound just as fresh and lively.
Price’s problem was timing. He came along between Elvis and the Beatles, a period that has unjustly been written off by many music historians as some sort of wilderness walkabout when nothing of interest was happening.
That’s just plain wrong. But music and artists from that period have often been underrespected — so much so that sometimes they have had to hire PR firms.
While Price ran out of radio hits after 1960, he kept performing for decades, re-creating the fire of his records on stages. “Mr. Personality,” he was called, and he lived up to it. He was gregarious, articulate and engaging.
He was also smart and driven. He started construction companies and built public housing in the Bronx. He created urban scholarship programs. He sold food and souvenir products under a “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” brand.
His second record label, Double-L, featured Wilson Pickett’s first solo releases. In the late 1960s he and Logan bought the famous Birdland club on Broadway in New York and reopened it as Turntable. Plans for a chain of Turntable clubs ended when Logan was murdered in their New York office, after which Price moved to Nigeria for a decade.
While he was there, he worked with Don King to promote the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match.
It’s fair to say Price worked with some colorful characters over his career. But for music drama, nothing matched his “Stagger Lee.”
“Stagger Lee” began as a folk ballad about an 1895 murder in St. Louis, when a pimp named “Stag” or “Stack” Lee fatally shot one Billy Lyons after Lyons took his Stetson hat in a bar on Christmas night. Songwriters regularly churned out ballads about sensational news events in those days, from the sinking of the Titanic to the assassination of President William McKinley, and this case caught the public fancy.
“Stack-A-Lee” was published in 1911 and first recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, a mainstream orchestra.
By the end of the 1920s it had been recorded by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ma Rainey, Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt, as well as country singers including Frank Hutchison.
As this spectrum suggests, it was a flexible song. Ma Rainey never mentions Billy Lyons, instead explaining that Stack had to die because he done her wrong. Lewis’s song is a philosophical morality tale with a refrain that goes “When you lose your money, learn to lose.” Hurt’s version focuses on Stack’s arrest and death sentence.
All versions agree on this: Stack was a “bad man.”
The song resurfaced often over the years, and in 1950 it was recorded by John Leon Gross, a popular New Orleans pianist who performed under the name Archibald. Imperial Records promoted it into a top-10 R&B hit.
Archibald was a fixture in the music clubs of New Orleans, the same places young Lloyd Price was playing. So it just might not be coincidence that when Price recorded the song eight years later, the only thing he changed was the title, to “Stagger Lee.” The lyrics are word-for-word the same as Archibald’s.
That didn’t stop Price and Hogan from giving themselves writers’ credit, a lucrative designation when a record reaches №1. Archibald had also given himself a writer’s credit, probably because he slightly reworked some of the traditional lyrics. In most previous versions, Billy Lyons had two children and a loving wife. In Archibald’s, there were three kids and Mrs. Lyons was “very sickly.”
But the headline for Price’s version of “Stagger Lee” was the singer’s attitude toward his protagonist.
Price’s Stagger Lee still murders a guy with three kids and an ailing wife. Over a Stetson hat.
But unlike almost everyone else who recorded the song, Price never calls Stagger Lee a bad man. He seems to make no judgment, reporting the facts in an almost exuberant tone. It’s hard to think of a murder song with a more upbeat feel, underscored by a female chorus that repeatedly chants, “Go, Stagger Lee!”
Gangsta rappers have sounded more remorseful about smoking someone with a .44, which led to an amusing footnote detailed in Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock and Soul.
Dick Clark wouldn’t let Price sing “Stagger Lee” on American Bandstand, even though it was a №1 record, because he felt the lyrics glorified violence.
So Price recorded a benign version in which Stag and Billy have an argument over a girl, but make up and become besties again. It’s an awful song, probably written in about five minutes, and it never replaced the real version anywhere except on Bandstand.
Clark wasn’t wrong that “Stagger Lee” takes a cavalier view of lethal violence. It sounds great, though, and between the production and Price’s delivery, fans clearly weren’t bothered by the narrative. .
It’s the kind of performance that can secure a guy’s place in rock ’n’ roll history, with or without a PR firm.