Lloyd Price recorded two versions of this song. The first had Stagger Lee and Billy gambling (Stagger Lee shot Billy at the end), the second, rushed out by ABC-Paramount after hearing complaints from radio listeners, had Stagger Lee and Billy arguing over a girlfriend, who goes back to Stagger at the end.
This was based on the traditional blues/folk song "Ballad of Stack-o-Lee," which was inspired by a real-life incident. Texas-born Lee Shelton, nicknamed Stagger Lee, was a notorious pimp and gambler who made headlines when he shot and killed Billy Lyons on Christmas night in 1895. The friends were drinking at a St. Louis saloon when they broke into an argument over politics that led to Stagger Lee crushing Lyons' hat. When Lyons confiscated Stagger's Stetson and refused to return it, Stagger fatally shot him in the abdomen.
Stagger Lee's legacy as a stone-cold tough guy made a popular villain in folklore. Although early versions of the tune by Mississippi John Hurt and Woody Guthrie concluded with Stagger being hanged for his crime, that wasn't the case. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the murder but was paroled in 1909. Two years later, he was back in jail for assault in robbery, where he died of tuberculosis in 1912.
Dick Clark thought Price's original version was too violent, so Price performed the tamer rendition for his appearance on Clark's American Bandstand.
This was the first rock 'n' roll record to hit #1 despite being censored.