On Christmas night in 1895 St. Louis, Lee Shelton (also known as "Stagger Lee") shot and murdered Billy Lyons after a dispute over Lee's hat. Sure, it was just another night it for that era, but this particular homicide quickly made the rounds via word-of-mouth; from local newspaper reports, to re-told eyewitness accounts in hushed tones and finally morphing into legend. Why this particular crime became so famous is anybody's guess, both men were black, both were part of various criminal elements. The story made its way into the imaginations of black laborers who identified with the inherent struggle and turned into a filed holler as a way to make their backbreaking work a bit more tolerable, if not more meaningful. Once a folk story is accepted by the African American community, there's no stopping it from becoming part of the fabric of the country and, in this particular case, "Stagger Lee" became one of the most famous American Folk Songs. As the years ticked by, more and more musicians became fascinated with the tale and made their own versions; up through generations it rose and, by some estimates, over two hundred musicians, bands and balladeers have since recorded versions of the song. This simple tale has become part of the American double-helix with the basic story never changing. As the Depression seeped in, actual, real-in-the-flesh, working-class anti-heroes became popular figures to the struggling citizens. Typically, each one had at least one song re-telling their respective take: Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger and Bonnie And Clyde and Shakey Jake. Wait, what?
Fresh out of the popular English group, Small Faces, Steve Marriott was writing songs for his new project, a band destined for greatness called Humble Pie with drummer Jerry Shirley, bassist Greg Ridley and a young Peter Frampton sharing guitar and vocal duties. One of the very first songs he wrote was not too far away from "Stagger Lee" or any of the subsequent depression-era folk ballads. Even with Marriott's already proven track record of quality songwriting and his admiration of American country music taken into consideration, the song's depth still impresses and has the simplicity and directness which can be found in all great folk songs or tales. Without knowing the background of the song's author, one could be led to believe "Shakey Jake" is an actual legend dating back generations, told around campfires or in country-crossing automobiles between two people passing the time, exchanging stories. It's bar room talk, a legend passed down from Elder to Junior.
Whether the legend of Stagger Lee was a direct influence on Steve Marriott has never really been proven or, for that matter, even questioned, but it does seem likely (his protagonist in this song bears no relation to the Ann Harbor, Michigan street musician of the same name nor the Chicago bluesman Shakey Jake Harris). Marriott was smart enough to not overwrite and kept it to a simple story of one man's mistake eventually leading him to a hopeful but undetermined ending. A shooting (accidental?) kills one man and puts another on the run. As all great folk legends, the protagonist here is pursued by some version of authority; in this case, "Texas Rangers", thus putting the action deep into America, deep into cowboy territory and, therefore, deep into that fantastical world so appealing to the imagination of young kids; even a young boy growing up in London, far from the Texas plains. Marriott was smart enough keep his anti-hero simple and convincing.
From what can be determined, "Shakey Jake" is one of the earliest songs the band wrote, showing up in their earliest set lists. The version here was recorded a year after its creation while the band was making an appearance on the popular German TV show, Beat Club. Undoubtedly the result of constant touring, the band has tightened -up the song, it's crunchier, leaner and has lost the vague sense of laziness of the original. With Marriott, Frampton and Ridley each taking vocal parts, the song's depth is increased; while the voice of the protagonist shifts with different voices and verse, the perspective remains the same. Add to that Marriott's tasty, Little Walter-styled harmonica part and you have yourself one amazingly compact song. These charming aspects were soon overrun by the band’s shift into a harder-hitting, arena filling Rock Machine sound which carried them for the next handful of years until their break-up. “The Sad Bag Of Shakey Jake" quickly became a memory of times since past, much like the song’s protagonist himself.