Brocklebank Craft Brewing
The story of Stack O’Lee has become a legendary piece of American folklore. His brutal and thoughtless actions were captured in early American music and have since become the fodder for countless songs. But the Stack O’Lee found on the label of Brocklebank Craft Brewing’s Stack O’Lee Pilsner certainly wasn’t a deceitful gambler from St. Louis; instead, he was the beloved “Brewdog of Brocklebank”. His name, however, did come from the legendary tale; in particular, the version released by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1951.
Lee Shelton (1865-1912) is most commonly referred to as “Stack O’Lee” or “Stagger Lee”, but he has also been called “Stag Lee”, “Stack Lee”, “Stagolee”, “Stacker Lee”, and “Stack-a-lee”. The names “Stack” or “Stag” likely came about either due to his tall height or because he worked alone (aka “stag”).
Shelton was born in Texas but moved to St. Louis as a young man and initially took on work as a carriage driver, but this career didn’t last long as Shelton soon became a well-known gambler and pimp in his community. He was African-American and was looking for new opportunities in the post-Civil War United States but, like many others, he found himself living in a majority black, poor neighborhood with little work available. As Southern blacks moved north after the war, many cities passed laws that segregated races and in St. Louis, legislation forbade blacks from moving into neighborhoods that were at least 75% white. By the 1890s, 85% of the city’s African-American population lived in only 2% of the city, and a greatly impoverished area at that. The result was crime, prostitution, murders, gambling, slums, red-light districts and widespread poverty.
Shelton lived and worked in the Deep Morgan neighborhood, a notorious red-light district that was home to the famous brothel known to locals as the Bucket of Blood. He became a successful businessman and was able to set up shop in one of the nicer neighborhoods. The “cribs” in the back of his house became a popular meeting place where his ladies would spend time with their clients and his reputation was further bolstered when he was chosen to be president of the Four Hundred Club, a social and political organization meant to improve the “moral and physical culture of young colored men”. The group was strongly aligned with the Democratic Party.
On Christmas Eve, 1895, Shelton shot and killed a man named Billy Lyons after a dispute in a saloon, and this is where the legendary story began. The many different American folk songs about this event have left an imprecise picture as what actually took place but it is likely that the shooting occurred over a political argument.
St. Louis’ Globe-Democrat described the two men as friends who were enjoying a few drinks but then the “discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen.” Following the shooting, Shelton calmly took his hat and walked out of the saloon. Lyons died from the gunshot wound.
But according to trial records, there was more to the story. Allegedly, Shelton first grabbed Lyons’ Derby hat and crushed it so Lyons retaliated by grabbing Shelton’s Stetson hat. Shelton demanded it back, Lyons refused and then Shelton drew his gun and hit Lyons in the head with it. In response, Lyons lunged at Shelton and was subsequently shot. Shelton was sentenced to 25 years in the Missouri State Penitentiary.
The first songs about “Stagger Lee” Shelton were likely sung by blacks in the St. Louis area in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but they rarely got any publicity. The first version that was published was in 1911 but the song wouldn’t actually be recorded until 1923 when Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians released the song “Stack O’ Lee Blues”. Numerous other recordings were then made by both black and white musicians and by the 1920s the story was well known around the country. Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 version of the song became the standard and it, or something similar, soon became a commonly played number. Over the years, the story of Lee Shelton’s shooting of Billy Lyons has been told and retold by Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Woody Guthrie, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Lloyd Price (who’s version hit #1 in 1959), Pat Boone, Ike and Tina Turner, The Righteous Brothers, Wilson Pickett, the Grateful Dead and James Brown as well as modern musicians like The Black Keys who in 2004 released a song titled “Stack Shot Billy”.
Lee Shelton’s legacy has left him with a reputation as a rather rotten soul but the Stack O’Lee from Brocklebank Craft Brewery was most certainly a good boy, or, as the label on Stack O’Lee Pilsner describes him - “best dog ever was”.
From the Brewer: A pilsner made with American hops. Named in honor of our late, great brewdog, Stack O’Lee, it shares his handsome golden color. ABV 5.5%
Ben and Anne Linehan - Co-Owners