“I Shot the Sheriff” hits No. 1 on the music charts. While the song had been written by reggae legend Bob Marley the previous year, it was Eric Clapton’s version that ascended to the top of the charts.
Crime and murder have been the subject of popular recorded music since the invention of the phonograph. “Stagolee,” also known and performed as “Stagger Lee,” was one of the 20th century’s first hits. The lyrics, in which the theft of a Stetson hat leads to the death of a self-professed family man, were based on an actual murder that occurred in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1894 or 1895. Over the years, versions of the song have been recorded by hundreds of artists, including, more recently, the Grateful Dead and Nick Cave.
Another early hit was “White House Blues,” which recounted the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. It has since become a bluegrass standard. Country and folk songs often feature murder as a theme as well. The Louvin Brothers had a huge hit in the 1950s with “Knoxville Girl,” a story-song in which the protagonist cannot help but kill his girlfriend, and Johnny Cash sang of killing a man “just to watch him die” in “Folsom Prison Blues.”
In the 1990s, crime became a common theme of rap music too. Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” caused a big controversy when opponents pressured Warner Brothers to stop the release of the record. And, in two separate murder trials, young men claimed that the violent imagery of Tupac Shakur’s lyrics provoked them to kill police officers. Both juries, however, rejected the arguments.