What Stagger Lee Brought to Lundi Gras
According to the legend, “the night was clear, and the moon was yellow, and the leaves came tumbling down.” At this point Lloyd Price, a native of Kenner who was one of the top rhythm and blues performers of the ‘70s would wail that, “I was standing on the corner when I heard my bulldog bark. He was looking at the two men who were gambling in the dark.” Price’s song would then reveal the defining moment of the dice match he witnessed. “It was Stagger Lee and Billy, two men who gambled late. Stagger Lee threw seven, Billy swore that he threw eight.”
That, folks, was where the trouble began. The night did not end well for Billy.
According to Price: “Stagger Lee told Billy, ‘I can’t let you go with that. You have won all my money. And my brand new Stetson hat.'”
That incident may have actually happened but not in New Orleans, as many would later believe. According to my friend, Wiki, the legend evolved out of St. Louis about a barroom incident that allegedly happened during the 1895 Christmas season. A bar patron, Billy Lyons, fell to the shots from a .44 fired by another customer, Lee Shelton, whose nickname was “Stag.”
Somehow the incident would be embellished into an American folk legend. Billy would increasingly be referred to as a bully. Stagger Lee would not do much better in reputation, often being described as a pimp, but apparently in a face-off between a bully and a pimp the one left standing get immortalized.
Over the years the story would spread along the Mississippi River and across the country. There were various recorded renditions plus twists in the story and different spellings of Stagger Lee’s name. A defining moment happened in 1959 when Price recorded his version of the song in the style of the sizzling rock and roll/rhythm and blues era.
Price’s version would top both the national R & B and pop lists selling over a million copies. For the sake of history, his song would also solidify the Stager Lee story. Without Price’s version the tale might have been long forgotten.
Then would come another twist. In June 1985 a newly created “musical fable” opened in the French Quarter at LePetite Theatre. Two of the city’s finest musical talents created the show; entertainer Vernel Bagneris and composer/performer Allan Toussaint. The show was called “Staggerlee.”
This version was set in New Orleans at a Treme neighborhood bar. The evening was the night before Mardi Gras.
If I may get personal, while watching the show, I experienced one of those “change your life” moments. Treme in its early days was settled largely by Black Creoles, so there was still evidence of the French Language dispersed into the culture. For example, the characters in Bagneris’ version of Stagger Lee referred to the night before Carnival as “Lundi Gras.” “What?” I thought to myself. “Lundi Gras, Fat Monday.”
There had been some evidence of occasional usage of that term especially when the city was more French, but not in modern usage. Nobody in current day Carnival was using that term. As a member of the city’s Mardi Gras advisory committee, I had been looking to create an event for the night before Mardi Gras which would incorporate the old tradition of Rex arriving by boat. As chair of that committee I thought that would be a cool name to bring into the mix. “We will call it Lundi Gras,” I would say. What? “Lundi Gras.”
We had no idea how quickly the word would catch on and become part of the common language of Carnival. Some people would suggest that the phrase had been commonly used to describe the Rex arrival, but it had not. A check of the newspapers and media coverage in any year immediately prior to ’87 would show no use of the term. Truth is Lundi Gras was made possible because of the infrastructure work done along the river for the 1984 World’s Fair, but its name came from Stagger Lee.
Lloyd Price died recently, this past April 30, having had a successful career but perhaps never knowing the cultural legacy of his bringing Stagger Lee back to life.
On March 2, 1987 the first Lundi Gras was staged. Rex arrived by boat at Riverwalk’s Spanish Plaza before a large happy crowd. The temperature was pleasantly cool, but I don’t remember the sky, which was about to be emblazoned with fireworks. I want to believe though that the night was clear, and the moon was yellow.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.