The following is an excerpt from an article originally published in Texas Monthly.
Huey P. Meaux ~ The Crazy Cajun
By Joe Nick Patoski
Huey Meaux [b. March 10, 1929] grew up outside of Kaplan, Louisiana, a small community surrounded by rice fields near Lafayette. His parents and siblings were poor sharecroppers who spoke mainly Cajun French, worked hard in the fields all week, and played harder on Saturday night, when Creoles and Cajuns would push back the furniture in a house, get roaring drunk, and dance to a band all night long.
"Back in them days, my dad worked for the man-picked cotton, hoed, grew rice, shucked it, and harvested it," he told me one time. "We had four shotgun houses, two black families, two white families. Music was a release. If somebody didn't get cut up and beat the shit out of someone, the dance was considered bad. I was raised that way."
He moved with his family to Winnie [Texas] at the age of twelve, part of the Cajun migration west across the Sabine River to greener rice fields and better jobs. His father, Stanislaus Meaux (known to all as Pappy Te-Tan), played accordion and fronted a group with teenaged Huey as the drummer. "I wasn't worth a damn," Huey told me once, but the excitement of being in a band stayed with him. In his twenties, he cut hair at the barber shop by day. "A barber is like a bartender, he knows who is screwing whose wife, when, and what time. I dug all that because I was part of something," he said. After hours, he was a disc jockey, hosting teen hops in Beaumont [Texas] and promoting dances all over the Golden Triangle.
His colleagues on the local music scene included singer George Jones, pianist Moon Mullican, and disc jockey J. P. Richardson, a.k.a. the Big Bopper. ("I was riding with him in the back seat of a car from Port Arthur to the studio in Houston when he wrote the lyrics for the B side of a novelty song he was cutting called Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor. He called the B side Chantilly Lace," Huey told me back in the seventies.) A local promoter and record producer named Bill Hall taught Meaux the nuances of the business of music, mainly by never paying Meaux what he was owed. "That was my college education in the bidness. I didn't think people were supposed to get paid for having fun. So Hall would take my records, put his name on them, and take them to the record companies. When we'd go to Nashville, he'd tell me to keep my mouth shut. He said they'd laugh at my accent up there. And I believed him," Huey said.
In 1959 Meaux produced the first hit with his name on it, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, a maudlin lament by Jivin' Gene, as Meaux had rechristened Gene Bourgeois. The song's hook, he liked to tell people, was the vocal's echo effect, which was accomplished by "sticking Gene back in the shitter, surrounded by all that porcelain." Subsequent hits such as Barbara Lynn's soul stirrer You'll Lose a Good Thing, Joe Barry's swinging I'm a Fool to Care, Rod Bernard's This Should Go on Forever, T. K. Hulin's As You Pass Me By Graduation Night, and Big Sambo and the Housewreckers' histrionic The Rains Came were all expressions of teen sincerity tailor-made for belly rubbing on the dance floor. The sound was dubbed swamp pop in honor of the region the artists came from.
Meaux was on his way to becoming a one-stop hit factory; eventually he would own many labels and Sugar Hill Recording Studios and manage artists; he would publish his artists' songs, collect their royalty checks, and promote their records to radio stations. The way Meaux told it, his first royalty check, $48,000 for Barbara Lynn's You'll Lose a Good Thing, attracted too much attention around Winnie. "Even today people think I made that money selling dope," he told me years ago. "I never sold any dope in my life. Sold some whiskey before, took some dope, but never did sell none." He shifted operations to Houston, where peers like Don Robey at Duke and Peacock Records and H. W. "Pappy" Daily at D Records were cutting and selling hits as if the town were Nashville and Memphis combined. Among such company, Huey was well known for his good ear and even better known for his promotional talents. "The song is number one. The singer is probably third or fourth," he explained to me. "The song makes the singer and the producer. Promotion makes all of it. It's up to the man behind the desk, spending money here and there, taking care of favors, just like you elect a president or governor."
As a promoter, his most brilliant stroke was co-opting the British invasion of the early sixties by finding a Tex-Mex rock band from San Antonio, dubbing them the Sir Douglas Quintet, dressing them up in British mod outfits, and even releasing their record on the London label. The record was She's About a Mover, which broke onto the Top Ten pop charts in 1965. Image was everything. "He used to make the married members of the band take off their wedding rings before going on stage," recalled organist Augie Meyers. "He didn't want to spoil the illusion."
Thanks to Meaux's relentless efforts, an all-Mexican San Antonio band called Sunny and the Sunliners broke the racial barrier on television's American Bandstand by performing a bluesy version of Little Willie John's Talk To Me in 1962. Soon after, Meaux had another hit--a slow and thoroughly teen rendering of Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome, I Could Cry by a young white band from Rosenberg called the Triumphs, fronted by a pimplefaced kid named B. J. Thomas.
"The reason why I had so many hits was that around this part of the country, you've got a different kind of people every hundred miles--Czech, Mexican, Cajun, black," Meaux said. The names came and went--Roy Head, Chuck Jackson, Ronnie Milsap, Mickey Gilley, Lowell Fulson, Joey Long, Doug Kershaw, Clifton Chenier, Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Copeland, Lightnin' Hopkins, Archie Bell and the Drells, Tommy McLain, Cosimo Matassa, and Jerry Wexler--all of them made records or worked with Meaux at one time or another. For two generations of Gulf Coast rock and rollers--or any musicians from Baton Rouge to San Antonio--he was the pipeline to the big time.
But for every Dale and Grace topping the charts with perfect pop hits like I'm Leaving It Up to You, there were twenty failures. Meaux's magic never worked for two talented young boys from Beaumont, Johnny and Edgar Winter, whom he recorded under the names The Great Believers and Texas Guitar Slim. "We'd put them on a local television show called Jive at Five, and their records would stop selling like you turn a light switch off," Meaux said. "People would freak out, being as they was albinos." He said he never got credit for his part in the discovery of ZZ Top and years later took great pleasure in suing the band and manager Bill Ham on behalf of Linden Hudson, a songwriter who was never paid or credited for a song the band recorded. Huey had a copy of the settlement check framed on his wall.
The flip side of his skills as a producer and a promoter was his willingness to take advantage of his artists. An artful con man, Meaux would mockingly warn his acts, "I wouldn't sign that if I were you" at the contract table. Another time he said, "I like to keep my artists in the dark so their stars shine brighter." The artists, hungry for fame and fortune, never balked-and many enjoyed long friendships with Meaux even though he took advantage of them. Gulfport, Mississippi, songwriter Jimmy Donley was a sentimental lyricist who sung in what Meaux called the heartbreak key. Donley sold compositions such as Please Mr. Sandman, Hello! Remember Me, and I'm to Blame to Meaux (and to Fats Domino, among others) for $50 apiece because he needed the money and figured he could always write another song. Even though Donley hardly profited from the relationship, he and Meaux remained close friends; Donley called him Papa. In the liner notes Meaux wrote for the Donley memorial album, Born to Be a Loser, he says that in 1963 Donley called him to thank him for all he'd done for him; 45 minutes later, Donley committed suicide.
Huey's gift of gab made it possible to overlook the gray areas of his personality--the way he treated his artists, his open interest in young women, and his hedonism. The first time I walked into Sugar Hill Recording Studios, in 1974, two years after Meaux bought it, he regaled me for the entire day with the story behind each of the gold records, the publicity photographs, and other mementos hanging on the wall and cluttering the desk in his office. It was a history lesson about roots before the roots of rock were cool.
His showmanship peaked as the Crazy Cajun on his Friday night radio program on KPFT-FM [in Houston]. Huey didn't just announce records, he went wild-stomping his feet to the music, whooping, singing, and yakking nonstop: "Give it to me good, Houston, unh, you sure betta b'lieve it. Come close to the radio and give your papa some sugar, sweet cher ami." A good portion of the radio audience was "the men and women in white up in the TDC"-- prisoners in the state system, mostly up in Huntsville. Huey read their letters, sent them dedications (Release Me was a popular request), and visited with their relatives in the studio.
One night when I was in the studio watching him do the show, he auditioned two new singles he'd just released on his Crazy Cajun label--Country Ways, by Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys, from Austin; and Before the Next Teardrop Falls, by Freddy Fender, a fifties-era Tex-Mex rocker from San Benito [see Music: Wasted Days, Texas Monthly, October, 1995]. The Crow tune never went very far, but the Fender cut was Meaux's biggest meal ticket of his career. Fender had a promising career interrupted by a stint in Angola State Prison in Louisiana for possession of two marijuana cigarettes in the early sixties. He had come to Meaux, citing the common bond of their experiences behind bars. The two had tried a variety of combinations, including Jamaican reggae sung in Spanish, to no avail until Meaux cajoled Fender into singing on top of an instrumental track recorded by an anonymous Nashville country band.
Before the Next Teardrop Falls was the unlikeliest country and pop hit of 1975, eventually reaching number one on Billboard's Hot 100. The follow-up, a remake of Fender's 1959 regional rock hit Wasted Days and Wasted Nights, went to number eight. Fender and Meaux had discovered a formula: recycle the swamp pop melodies into modern country music by replacing horn charts with steel guitar fills and female choruses. Meaux was Fender's producer and manager, meaning he received a bigger cut than his artist. Freddy didn't care because they were both getting rich with hits like Secret Love, You'll Lose a Good Thing, Living It Down, and Vaya Con Dios. Freddy bought a house on Ocean Drive in Corpus Christi, where he parked his custom hot rods on the front lawn. Huey bought himself a Beatles-style shag wig and a Lincoln Continental, paid off his note on Sugar Hill Studios, and received major record company funding for his custom record label with a growing stable of acts.
By the end of the ride, in 1980, Fender was strung out on dope and booze and bankrupt with $10 million in debts. He was also accusing Meaux of taking advantage of him through unscrupulous contracts. Huey, who had previously specialized in one-hit wonders, was ready to sever the relationship too, blaming Freddy for squandering his earnings. In 1981 Meaux survived a bout with throat cancer. Save for one last novelty hit--Rockin' Sidney Simien's 1985 zydeco ditty (Don't Mess With) My Toot-Toot-Huey more or less bailed out of the producer-manager-promoter realm and moved into music publishing. He augmented the Crazy Cajun song-publishing catalog by purchasing, among other tunes, Desi Arnaz's signature song, Babalu, and a number of soul composer Isaac Hayes' songs from the Memphis bank that assumed ownership of them after Hayes went bankrupt.
Joe Nick Patoski is a senior editor at Texas Monthly and former music columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. He has contributed articles to Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and Cream, among other music publications, and is the co-author (with Bill Crawford) of Stevie Ray Vaugh: Caught In The Crossfire, published in 1993.
Source: Sex, Drugs, And Rock & Roll, Texas Monthly, May, 1996 - Vol. 24, Issue 5, p. 116 (10 pp.)
Copyright © 1996 Texas Monthly
Photo: The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll,
Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke, editors, Random House, New York, 1992, p. 255
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