1895 – “Stagger” Lee Shelton kills William Lyons

Lee Shelton (sometimes spelled Sheldon) killed William Lyons in a bar run by one Bill Curtis in St Louis, on Christmas Eve, 1895.

Shelton was a cab driver who moonlighted as a pimp – he was in fact a member of a group of fashion-conscious pimps called the Macks. Perhaps this explains his murder of Lyons, who, in the course of a lengthy argument with Shelton, grabbed the other man’s hat and refused to return it even when Shelton drew on him. So Shelton shot him.

He was convicted of the murder, and spent the rest of his life in prison, where he died of tuberculosis in 1912. He almost certainly heard at least one version of the multitude of variants that exist of the song about his crime.

Referenced in:

Stagger Lee – Lloyd Price
Stagolee – Mississippi John Hurt
Stagger Lee – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

The above selection includes just a few of my favoourite versions – there are literally hundreds out there.

1966 – Mississippi John Hurt dies of a heart attack

Although he was mostly an obscurity during his life, in the last few years, beginning with an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1964, Mississippi John Hurt became a star of the folk and blues scenes.

He had originally recorded back in the Twenties, but nothing much came of it, and by the time the Great Dperession killed Okeh (his label), he was back in Avalon, Mississippi, sharecropping. He would have stayed there if not for the efforts of musicologist Tom Hoskins, who tracked him down and convinced him to give it another go, with much better results.

But Hurt was already in his seventies by then, and his life had been marked by poverty and suffering. He died of a heart attack in 1966, although not before recording a few more sessions.

Referenced in:

Did You Hear John Hurt – Tom Paxton