The Story Behind ...
SHANNON by HENRY GROSS:
The Story of "Shannon" (as told by Henry Gross):
When I was twenty-one years old a wonderful girl came into my life by the name of Kathy Reinmann. As if having her in my life as a friend, a wife and a friend again for the next twenty three years, until she died of lung cancer August 24, 1995, was not enough, she brought along with her into my heart her two year old Irish Setter, Shannon. She was an uncannily human dog whose ability to manipulate her human counterparts cannot be understated. I was touring around the country quite a lot in 1975 promoting an album called HENRY GROSS, the one with the yellow cover on A&M Records. I had the pleasure of doing long strings of dates with a group whose music always inspired me, The Beach Boys. Carl Wilson, arguably the finest solo voice in the group, was warm and welcoming from the very first show I played with them on a freezing cold day at the University of New Hampshire. After getting to know each other we realized we shared a love for much of the same music and a passion for fine vintage guitars. On a break from touring, while I was in Los Angeles, Carl invited me to his house to spend a day talking guitars, cars and rock & roll. While he was preparing lunch his two Alaskan husky dogs reached up on the counter and inhaled our food. I told Carl, while admiring the military perfection of the raid executed by his huskies, that I had an Irish Setter at home named Shannon. He was quite moved as he told me that he had an Irish Setter named Shannon that had been killed only recently when hit by a car. We spent the rest of the day jamming and driving around Carl's world which as a friend and to be honest a Beach Boy's fanatic was a thrill. When I returned to New York City, where I lived, I began work on my second A&M album, PLUG ME INTO SOMETHING. A few weeks later just as we were about to master the finished album I was sitting on my bed with Shannon strumming my guitar trying to write a song when I was disturbed by the loud bass sounds from the Latin music blasting from the apartment above me. Rather than complain I made an amazing discovery. If I tried to play records of my own choice I could drown out the intrusive bass sounds but was unable to concentrate. But I found that when I played an environments record called "The Ultimate Seashore" I could drown out the bass and have a pleasing and relaxing background sound that didn't interfere with my writing. In a matter of minutes with the ocean sounds guiding me, and my 1964 Gibson Hummingbird acoustic in my hands, my thoughts drifted to Carl, The Beach Boys and with a glance at my girl Shannon, the indescribable sadness that losing such a beloved partner in life must be. The song seemed to write itself taking no more than ten minutes and with almost no cross outs on the paper. I made a tape of it on my giant Sony cassette recorder and sent it off to Carl. I was hoping to stop the presses and record it for PLUG ME INTO SOMETHING which Carl had already sung on, adding background vocals to the opening song, ONE MORE TOMORROW, but it was too late. I had to wait for the next album to record it. I always wished I could have had Carl sing backgrounds on SHANNON but conflicting schedules dictated it wasn't meant to be. I believed after it was recorded for my RELEASE album, that it was destined to be a hit and lobbied hard for it to be the first single. You see, the man upstairs who had played the loud Latin music, beginning the entire chain of events, came down when he heard me playing mixes over and over to decide which I liked. However, rather than hearing the expected complaints, he said he loved the sound of the record and wanted to know where he could buy a copy. I reasoned if a salsa music fan who spoke little English loved the record through the ceiling, Shannon, Kathy and I had a hit on our hands. Fortunately, history and lady luck proved me right. And that is the true story of the song SHANNON.
FORGOTTEN HITS: The song that you are most famous for here in The States has got to be "Shannon" ... it's a beautiful tune and your website explains again what inspired you to write it. Once you knew that you were dedicating this song to Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys, did that help dictate the arrangement? The vocals are beautiful and I'm sure many folks at the time thought that perhaps The Beach Boys were actually singing on the record!
HENRY GROSS: I wrote the song without conscious effort to sound like anything. I more or less channeled it while thinking about a visit to Carl's Beverly Hills home I'd just had. I was always a big "Beach Boys" fan and I guess subconsciously I wrote in in their style. It took about ten minutes to write with almost no changes afterwards. One of those "meant to be's" I guess!
Stagger Lee (also recorded as both Stack-O-Lee and Stag-O-Lee) was first recorded in 1923 by blues / folk artist Mississippi John Hurt. The song tells the story of a murder that took place on Friday, December 27th (most often erroneously remembered as occurring on Christmas Eve) at The Bill Curtis Saloon in St. Louis, Missouri, back in 1895. According to legend, "Stag" Lee Shelton, a cab driver (and black pimp), shot and killed William "Billy" Lyons with his 44-caliber revolver after Billy snatched Stag's Stetson Hat. The story (as documented in The St. Louis Globe-Democrat in their issue dated Saturday Morning, December 28, 1895) read as follows:
"William Lyons, 25, colored, a levee hand, living at 1410 Morgan Street, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o'clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon. (NOTE spelling: Sheldon's CORRECT name was Shelton but it was misspelled throughout the newspaper article) Sheldon, a carriage driver, also colored, lives at North Twelfth Street.
"Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. 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 drew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor, Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away.
"He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. He was removed to the city hospital. At the time of the shooting, the saloon was crowded with negroes. Lee Sheldon is also known as "Stag" Lee."
Lyons eventually died from the gun shot wounds inflicted that night. Shelton was tried and convicted and ultimately served prison time for the crime. In fact, he died in prison in 1912 of tuberculosis.
Although a total of five similar murders occurred that SAME day in St. Louis, for some reason the story of THIS murder spread and grew ... soon embellished and set to song. (Clearly, not only do you not tug on Superman's cape or spit in the wind or pull the mask of the ol' Lone Ranger ... but you ALSO do not mess around with Stag Lee's Hat!!!) In fact, Lee Shelton's "badness" grew at one point (according to Julius Lester's "Black Folktales") to near mythical proportions:
"Stagolee was, undoubtedly and without question, the baddest nigger that ever lived.
Stagolee was so bad that the flies wouldn't even fly around his head in the summertime, and the snow wouldn't fall on his house in the winter."
Most historians consider the Mississippi John Hurt version to be the most definitive, as it recounts most of the elements that eventually appeared in most of the musical retellings of the tale.
The first CHARTED version of Stagger Lee occurred in 1950 when an artist called simply Archibald hit The Top Ten on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues Chart. This was the first time the common melody associated with this tune came into our consciousness.
Nine years later, Lloyd Price would top both Billboard's R & B Chart as well as their Pop Chart with his rendering. The biggest hit version came in 1959 when Lloyd Price took his rocked-up version all the way to #1 on The Billboard Chart.
DIDJAKNOW? - 1: Dick Clark was so concerned about the song's description of a murder that he had Price cut another version for airing on American Bandstand!!!
He needn't have worried ... it was the original, unedited "scary" version that topped the charts!!!
DIDJAKNOW? - 2: Lloyd's cousin was a guy named Larry Williams, who also served as Price's driver and valet. When he, too, got interested in music, Lloyd got him an audition with Specialty Records, where he recorded the '50's rock and roll classics Short Fat Fannie and Bony Moronie. The Beatles (and John Lennon in particular!) thought enough of Larry's recordings to record their own versions of Dizzy Miss Lizzy, Slow Down and Bad Boy.
DIDJAKNOW? - 3: The background singers on Lloyd Price's version of Stagger Lee were none other than The Ray Charles Singers, a move Price says was calculated to help him cross-over to a white record-buying audience.
(P.S. It worked!!!)
In 1967, The Wicked Wilson Pickett cut a GREAT soulful version that went all the way to #17 on The Cash Box Chart. (It remains yet ANOTHER Top 20 Hit COMPLETELY ignored by oldies radio today ... and that's a shame because it's a GREAT version!!!)
And, in 1971, bubblegum star Tommy Roe cut probably the most "vanilla" rendition ever committed to vinyl.
Over the years, versions of Stagger Lee were recorded by artists as diverse as Beck, Pat Boone, James Brown, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Clash, Neil Diamond, Dion, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Grateful Dead, Woody Guthrie, Bill Haley and the Comets, The Isley Brothers, Tom Jones, Huey Lewis and the News, Jerry Lee Lewis, Memphis Slim, Elvis Presley, Professor Longhair, Ma Rainey, The Righteous Brothers, Tom Rush, Taj Mahal, Ike and Tina Turner, The Ventures and Doc Watson ... as well as literally HUNDREDS of others! Yesterday we featured a couple of the earliest known recordings, including a 1923 reading by Mississippi John Hurt and the first CHARTED version by Archibald, a Top Ten Hit on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues Chart back in 1950.
And the legend of Stagger Lee lives on ... in his song Shoulder Holster from his Blue Moves album, Elton John sings "It was just like Frankie and Johnny ... and it was just like Stagger Lee" ... in the recent film Black Snake Moan, actor Samuel L. Jackson's character sings a little bit of the song. And, although we kidded about it yesterday, I've just GOT to believe that Jim Croce was at least in SOME way inspired by the escapades of Stagger Lee when he wrote his #1 Hits You Don't Mess Around With Jim and Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. Suffice to say, Stagger Lee's fame was widespread and legendary.
Wanna do MORE research on this tune??? You'll find ALL kinds of referrals for Stagger Lee on the web ... just google that title and nearly 100,000 references will pop up!!!
In fact, it's now speculated that part of the reason the story of Stagger Lee
spread as quickly (and as widely) as it did was due to a song called The Bully Song first featured in the Broadway Musical The Widow Jones back in 1895, about three months BEFORE the murder of Billy Lyons took place at Bill Curtis' Saloon.
In those original lyrics, we're warned:
"Have you heard about that Bully that just came to town?
He's down among the niggers, layin' their bodies down.
I'm a-lookin' for that bully and he must be found."
It's believed by some that Stagger Lee's name was later inserted as the source of some of the nasty deeds performed by The Bully ... and that as the legend grew, more and more evilness was attributed to The Stag Man over time.
Meanwhile, with literally HUNDREDS of recorded versions of the song in existence, Stagger Lee's reputation for "badness" grew over the years ... so much so that in one version, Stagger Lee appears in hell after he is executed and is SO bad that he takes control of The Devil's Kingdom!!!
Rolling Stone Magazine (when naming Stagger Lee one of the 500 Greatest and Most Influential Rock And Roll Songs Of All-Time) referred to Stagger Lee as "the original gangsta"!!! I think they just may be right!
Hot Rod Lincoln
Hot-Rodding has always been one of those 1950's rock-and-roll / juvenille delinquent stereotypes ... at least that seems to be the era that's locked in time with this image. However, the fact is as soon as there were automobiles, there were people out there trying to make those automobiles go faster.
According to Joe Wajgel, the first hit song about a car was recorded back in 1905 by Billy Murray (no, not the Saturday Night Live Guy!!!), who took In My Merry Oldsmobile all the way to #1, where it stayed for seven weeks. Literally hundreds and hundreds of car songs have followed it. (The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Ronny and the Daytonas and several others owe a HUGE debt to this fad!) And let's not forget Rocket 88, felt my many to be the very first rock and roll song ever!!!
Although this seems to be more of a late-'50's thing, Hot Rod Magazine was first published back in 1947 and the song Hot Rod Race ... which evolved into the better-known Hot Rod Lincoln ... first hit the charts in late 1950 / early 1951.
We stated at the time that this piece originally ran that Joel Whitburn's book should probably be revised to say that the first POP charting of this song was by Tiny Hill back in 1951. It peaked at #29 on the pop charts that year.
Arkie Shibley's version never hit the pop chart, but peaked at #5 on the Country Chart in 1950. He was actually the FIRST to record this track. In fact, after recording the George Wilson original, he wrote several follow-ups: Hot Rod Race #2 was released in 1951, Arkie Meets The Judge (aka Hot Rod Race #3) followed it, as did Hot Rod Race #4 (aka The Guy In The Mercury) and Hot Rod Race #5 (The Kid In The Model "A").
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