Killer Blues to Install Headstones at the Graves of Stagger Lee, Milton Sparks This Weekend

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This St. Louis-based pre-war blues record featured Milton Sparks' "Grinder Blues" alongside songs by thirteen other notable artists.
  • This St. Louis-based pre-war blues record featured Milton Sparks' "Grinder Blues" alongside songs by thirteen other notable artists.

All too often we read stories about aging, sometimes-forgotten music legends that slowly wallow away into obscurity. Highly influential music pioneers get left in the pits of financial hell when -- if there was any justice in the music business (spoiler alert: there truly isn't) -- these legends' estates would be obnoxiously loaded, and today's disposable pop stars would cease to earn a penny once their fifteen minutes passed. It seems like this sentiment rings particularly true with blues legends. Blame it on the racial divide that plagued their respective era, or blame it on their insistence to do things on their own terms, without playing by anyone else's rules.

See Also: -The Story of Stagger Lee

Insert the Killer Blues Headstone Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization founded by Steven Salter out of Whitehall, Mississippi, in 2008, with assistance from St. Louisan Aaron Pritchard. While the organization isn't presenting over-sized, six-figure checks to the families of fallen blues legends, it's certainly offering an immeasurable amount of gratitude in the form of proper headstones for blues musicians lying in unmarked graves. . This Sunday, April 14, Killer Blues will be installing headstones in our own back yard, at the historic Greenwood Cemetery, the oldest commercial African American cemetery in the St. Louis metropolitan area. The organization will install headstones for Milton Sparks and the infamous Lee "Stagger Lee" Shelton. RFT Music recently caught up with Pritchard, the yice president of the Killer Blues Headstone Project, to discuss the organization, its history and Sunday's unveiling.

Michael Dauphin: What are some of the projects you have worked on so far?

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The Killer Blues Headstone Project has laid stones for "Big" Maceo Merriweather, Walter Vinson, Luther Tucker, Robert "Washboard Sam" Brown, John Henry Barbee, Johnny Jones, J.T. Brown, Richard "Hacksaw" Harney, Johnny "Daddy Stovepipe" Watson, "Babyface" Leroy Foster, Eddie King, Walter Davis and, as of this Sunday, Stagger Lee Shelton and Milton Sparks. We have also donated monies towards the purchase of markers for Otis Spann, Calvin Frazer, "Gatemouth" Brown, Willie Lee Brown and the McCoy Brothers.

Are there any particularly unique stories that have come out these projects?

Sometimes we lay stones publicly, and sometimes we lay them quietly. They are all of equal importance, and all have equally unique back-stories. With that being said, the public ceremonies are memorable, to say the least. At the "Hacksaw" Harney unveiling, both Dorothy Moore, who is a legendary blues singer and Grammy Award nominee, and blues historian Steve LaVere were in attendance. The Eddie King ceremony was also a very memorable event. Somewhere in between fifteen to twenty loved ones were there to honor King's life, and afterwards we were invited to the family's home for dinner and an impromptu jam session by King's old bandmates, which was an unforgettable experience. The way they welcomed us into their home, and the way that they showed their hospitality was incomparable.

A short documentary on the project.

Click through to page two for more.

ILLUSTRATION BY TIMOTHY LANE
  • Illustration by Timothy Lane

What prompted the Stagger Lee project?

Any blues enthusiast knows the story of cruel old "Stagger Lee," who shot Billy Lyons during an argument over a Stetson hat. The story song has been recorded over 400 times in a plethora of variations and styling by legendary artists such as Ma Rainey, Mississippi John Hurt, Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan. Lloyd Price's version sold a million copies and topped the R&B charts, as well as the pop Charts in 1959. Although Shelton himself was not a musician, the events that transpired on that fateful Christmas Eve in 1895 made a significant historical impact on American music. Therefore, we felt compelled to honor his historical contribution by providing him a headstone.

Stagger Lee wasn't necessarily a blues musician. In fact, he was a seedy pimp. Have you received any backlash for dedicating a project to him?

We definitely discussed the possibilities of the scrutiny that might come with honoring the life of a convicted murderer, but so far we haven't received any backlash. As aforementioned, Shelton's story-turned-song had a significant impact on American music and American folklore. While we respect the opinions of the public, we made the decision to follow through with the project and honor his historical contribution.

How much contact and input (script, design, etc) do you receive from the families of the figures whom you are making headstones for?

Unfortunately, many times we are unable to locate the families of our recipients. However, when the families are involved, we always respect any of their wishes. For example, Eddie King's son "Rumpy" passed away within days of his legendary father, and they were buried together. King's widow requested that we honor the life of Rumpy on the marker, and without question we obliged.

Sunday's ceremony is open to the public, and it will take place at 2 p.m. at the historic Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale. Due to overgrowth the exact locations of the burial spots of both Sparks and Shelton are unreachable. Therefore, the Killer Blues Headstone Project has partnered with the nonprofit Friends of Greenwood to create a memorial garden near the cemetery's entrance, where the headstones will be placed. For information regarding the ceremony, contact Aaron Pritchard at 314-775-6953 or aaronpritchard.killerblues@yahoo.com. To learn more about the Killer Blues Headstone Project's past or future endeavors please visit www.killerblues.net.

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