I have at least sixteen versions of the classic song “Stagger Lee” on my iPod. Yet, I only recently discovered this version that I love recorded by Lloyd Price.
Lloyd Price’s version of “Stagger Lee” topped the pop and R&B charts in 1958, and it also made the top 10 in the U.K singles charts. The folk song about Stagger Lee killing Billy Lyons, however, has been around since at least 1911 when it was first published.
Price was born on March 9, 1933, and he is from Kenner, Louisiana. The town has a street named after him and celebrates an annual Lloyd Price Day.
Although his first hit – “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” — was in 1952, he is still around. He gave this interview in 2013.
Buddy Holly opened shows on his final tour in 1959 with “Gotta Travel On” a song that was not one of his originals. Crickets drummer Jerry Allison once was asked why Holly performed the song so much. He explained, “Because Buddy liked it.”
I’ve laid around and played around, This old town too long; Summer’s almost gone, Yes, winter’s comin’ on; I’ve laid around and played around, This old town too long, And I feel like I gotta travel on.
Tommy Allsup, who played guitar for Holly on The Winter Dance Party Tour, also has noted that Holly liked “Gotta Travel On” as the opener on that tour. There are no recordings of Holly singing the song, but here the late Tommy Allsup plays the song in 2015 in tribute to Holly.
Bob Dylan also had a fondness for the song. He recorded “Gotta Travel On,” which appears on his Self-Portrait (1970) album.
And, perhaps because as a 17-year-old he had seen Holly perform the song on The Winter Dance Party Tour, Dylan also often closed with the song during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1976. Additionally, The Seekers, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Dean, The Limeliters, Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, Jerry Lee Lewis, Peggy Lee, Boxcar Willie, and others have covered the song.
So, where did Buddy Holly’s opening song come from?
Origins of “Gotta Travel On”
“Gotta Travel On” is credited as being written by David Lazar, Larry Ehrlich, Paul Clayton and Tom Six. But the song goes back quite a ways.
The first time one hears the song, a listener may think the song is just about an adventurous person off to see the world. But upon closer listen, there is a darker undercurrent. There is a reason the person must be traveling on: The singer has been gambling (“played around too long”), perhaps fraudulently. And the singer also notes,”High sheriff and police riding after me.” And Johnnie (the singer’s brother?) has “been on the chain gang too long.”
The song has been traced to a song called “Yonder Comes the High Sherif” in 1891, although it also was called “I’ve Laid Around and Played Around.” Ollis Martin made the first official recording of the song in August 6, 1927, with his version called “Police & High Sheriff Come.”
The melody appears in different songs with different lyrics. One song that uses the same tune is “Long Journey Home,” as in this version by The Delmore Brothers.
A number of years passed before a variation of the original version of “Gotta Travel On” appeared through Sanga Music Inc. obtaining copyright in early 1959. The composers were listed as folksinger Paul Clayton, Larry Ehrlich, David Lazar, and Tom Six.
Clayton was an important figure in the Folk Revival in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to his work on writing “Gotta Travel On,” he was a fine singer and scholar of folk songs. He influenced a number of more famous artists, such as Bob Dylan, and also loosely inspired a character or characters in the film Inside Llewyn Davis. [Thanks to @pangurdubh3 for the additional information on Clayton.]
The three latter names listed as writers were pseudonyms for members of The Weavers. Ehrlich was a pseudonym for Lee Hays, Six was a pseudonym for Fred Hellerman, and Lazar was a pseudonym for Pete Seeger.
On February 22, 1958, The Weavers performed the song with the title “Done Laid Around” live at Carnegie Hall (appearing on their album Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall).
But it would take another singer to make it a massive hit.
The Hit Recording of “Gotta Travel On”
Billy Grammer — who was born on August 28, 1925 — took “Gotta Travel On” to near the top of both the pop and country charts in 1959.
After the success of the song, Grammer became a regular member on the Grand Ole Opry. Regarding his recording career, Grammer is largely known for “Gotta Travel On,” his one big hit. But he had an interesting life.
Billy Grammer’s Life
In 1963, Grammer also was the first to chart with the “I Wanna Go Home.” The song later was a much bigger hit as “Detroit City” for Bobby Bare. Below is Grammer’s version.
In the 1960s, Grammer formed a guitar company, RG&G Company, which after a sale was renamed Grammer Guitar, Inc. Today, many collectors and musicians seek out Grammer guitars. The first one made is on exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Grammer was interviewed about his guitar for the NAMM Oral History Project in 2010.
Finally, Grammer and his band, “The Travel On Boys,” attended an infamous event in American history. They performed at the rally in Laurel, Maryland where Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace was shot and paralyzed on May 15, 1972.
Grammer, who became blind in later life, passed away on August 10, 2011, after a long-term illness and an earlier heart attack. He was 85.
Although Grammer was not in the news toward the end of his life, many still remembered his work. The Grand Ole Opry honored Grammer for his 50 years of membership in February 27, 2009. He was interviewed about his guitar for the NAMM Oral History Project in 2010.
In this video from later in life with Grammer’s wife Ruth, Grammer tells the story behind another song of his and plays, “I’m Letting You Go, Goodbye.”
Today’s song of the day is Jim Steinman’s “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through.” The song is one of my favorite pop songs of the early 1980s, although it has a bit of a tortured history.
After Jim Steinman found success writing the songs for Meat Loaf’s album Bat Out of Hell, the two planned to team up again. But the plan encountered various problems, including Meat Loaf’s injured vocal cords. So, Steinman set out to record the follow-up album himself.
Bad for Good
In 1981, Steinman released Bad For Good, an album that I love largely for nostalgia’s sake. Many admire the songwriting for the album, believing that if Meat Loaf had recorded the songs, it would have been a worthy follow-up to Bat Out of Hell.
But Steinman’s straining vocals cannot match the power of Meat Loaf’s voice. Meat Loaf’s voice perfectly suits the bombast of Steinman’s songs. Yet, I still find Steinman’s struggles on the songs make them more vulnerable and, well. . . human. I wish Steinman — who was born November 1, 1947 — would record another album with him singing his songs.
When I bought the record album back in 1981, the album came with a small record that had two additional songs. One song was an instrumental and on the flip side was “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through.”
“Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through”
“Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” clearly appeared as a song added for radio play. It was a more typical pop song than the over-blown songs on the record, lacking some of Steinman’s teenage-style humor.
Still, “Rock and Roll Dreams” stands out on the album. I loved it. The song went to Number 32 on the Billboard Hot 100.
But something was different about Steinman’s voice. I wondered how producers got Steinman’s voice to sound so much better on “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through.” Many years later, though, I learned that it was not Steinman singing the song, even though it was credited to him. The singer was Rory Dodd.
Here is Steinman’s video for the song, where he is lip syncing over Dodd’s voice.
Dodd was a Canadian singer who sang backup on many of Meat Loaf’s songs through the years. He also is the voice singing “Turn Around Bright Eyes” on Bonnie Tyler’s mega-hit recording of another Steinman classic, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” One may wonder what might have happened with everyone’s careers had Steinman handed over the whole album for Dodd to record.
Critics and fans never complained about Steinman’s singer deception the way people became upset about Milli Vanilli at the end of the decade. Perhaps fans did not care because Steinman’s real voice appeared on the album, or perhaps they just enjoyed the song.
Steinman even appeared on television to lip sync and promote “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through,” featuring an interesting ballet dance accompaniment to distract from his mouth movements. (Note that the video looks like it is not available, but it plays when you press the play button.)
The brilliant stand-up comic Mitch Hedberg was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota on February 24, 1968. After starting his comedy career in Florida and then moving to Seattle, he got a big break by appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman in 1996.
Hedberg went on to make people laugh onstage and to work on television and film. His unique pattern of speech and comedic style, partly created because he suffered from stage fright, makes him one of the most identifiable comedians. He was also simply brilliant.
This video appears to show Hedberg’s first appearance on Letterman. He was on television with David Letterman ten times in his career, but this video clearly is an early performance (and some on YouTube note it is that first appearance).
Unfortunately, Hedberg died at the young age of 37 in a New Jersey hotel room on March 30, 2005. The medical examiner listed cocaine and heroin as the cause.
Fortunately, though, his work is still finding new fans and making us laugh today. He is missed.
“I write jokes for a living, man. See I sit in my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny and then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.” — Mitch Hedberg