22 September 2011

Ivan Koop Kuper : Huey P. Meaux Was the Crazy Cajun

Huey P. Meaux was the Crazy Cajun

By Ivan Koop Kuper / The Rag Blog / September 22, 2011

One Friday evening in 1973, a burly looking biker entered the control room of community radio station KPFT FM, the Pacifica station that broadcast from the second floor of the since demolished Atlanta Life building in downtown Houston.

He was there to visit "The Crazy Cajun Radio Show," and to ask host Huey P. Meaux to play a track from an old Eddy Arnold album that he brought with him. The biker told Meaux the record was the only possession of his late father's that he owned, and that it was also the anniversary of his father's death.

In his thick Cajun-French accent, Meaux dedicated a selection from the album to the memory of the biker's father, and as the scratchy vinyl record spun on the turntable, the biker stood in the corner of the room and wept. It was from personal experiences like this one that Meaux developed his keen sense of reading people and knowing how music can trigger an emotional response.

Huey Purvis Meaux made his living as an independent record producer. It was a talent he honed in the 1950s while working as both a barber in Winnie, Texas, and a disc jockey at KPAC-AM in Port Arthur. It was there the naïve Meaux was first introduced to the magic of magnetic recording tape and analog reel-to-reel tape recorders.

Meaux's mission in life was to discover local musical talents, take them into the recording studio, manufacture phonograph records from the master sound recordings, and promote the records to regional radio stations in hopes of receiving the much-coveted radio exposure necessary to make a record into a hit.

Similar to the East Texas "wildcatters" of days-gone-by who drilled oil wells on speculation of striking it rich, Meaux would also speculate on the abundance of homegrown talent, of all musical genres, he found in the night clubs and road houses of East Texas and Louisiana.

Raised "dirt poor" with barely a high school education, Meaux would leave his mark on the music industry and become a significant contributor to popular American culture.

Meaux followed a specific business model that he perfected over 30 years. He learned that after first breaking a single regionally, and with the right amount of radio exposure and sales from independent record distributors, he could then have the leverage necessary to license both the master sound recording and the copyright of the composition to the larger independents and the once prevalent major labels.

Meaux was no novice to this process or to the business of music. Between 1959 and 1985, his name would be associated with 55 gold singles and albums, and eight platinum albums that were produced in recording studios primarily in New Orleans, Houston, and Pasadena, Texas.

"I was so nervous and my hands were shaking as I was fading out that song," Meaux would always recall when discussing "I'm Leaving It Up To You," a track he produced from the Louisiana singing duo known as Dale and Grace, "because in my heart I just knew I had a hit on my hands."

Meaux's intuition was on target because by October 1963, the remake of the composition originally penned and recorded by California's Don "Sugarcane" Harris and Dewey Terry, reached the No. 1 position on Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 chart, and remained on the chart for 12 weeks. The selection that Meaux chose for the Louisiana duo to record resurfaced nine years later when it charted again when it was recorded by America's "squeaky-clean" brother and sister singing duo, Donny and Marie Osmond.

"My records are so bad that the only reason people buy so many is to keep them off the market," Meaux would always boast to those held captive by his bravado and flamboyant personality. With his gift for gab, Meaux could charm both his small town radio audience and the most jaded of big city music industry veterans. If you were to ask Huey Meaux how he was doing or how he was feeling at any given time, his stock comeback would be, "If I felt any betta' bruddah, I'd run for gouvna,' you betta' sho' believe it."

Huey P. Meaux and Doug Sahm at Sugar Hill Studios in Houston, 1974. Photo by Hank Lam.

Meaux would become close friends and business associates with many of the music industry's power brokers of the era, including the late Shelby Singleton of Mercury Records, the late Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, and Aaron Schechter, the low-profile New York-based CPA who Meaux affectionately referred to as "Junior." The unlikely team of Schecter and Meaux, reminiscent of Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison from the Neil Simon stage play, The Odd Couple, maintained a successful professional relationship and a personal bond that endured for more than 25 years.

"I saved his neck many times from the IRS and on many other occasions and there was never any appreciation shown from him," said the 85-year-old Schechter who has made a career of keeping the books for a who's-who of rock royalty.
I quit Huey twice but he chose to ignore me.

I first met Huey way back in 1969 after he got out of jail. He came to New York to visit his lawyer Paul Marshall and he asked Paul to find him a "Jewish New York accountant." Marshall referred him to me and he came by the office and I began doing business for him. Our first order of business was an audit of Scepter Records owned by Florence Greenberg who owed Huey back royalties.

Huey was a real character. He was fascinating, yet he could also be repulsive at times. The last time I saw him was in 1996, right before he went away to prison again.

Born March 10, 1929, in Wright, Louisiana, and raised in Kaplan in the heart of "Acadiana," Meaux always recalled a time growing up when only French was spoken at home and English was his second language." My teachers used to whip your ass if they caught you speaking French in public school," Meaux would say about his grade school days.

Meaux's family settled in East Texas in the town of Winnie, 23 miles south of Beaumont, in 1940, when he was 12. Winnie was in the rich, culturally fertile region of East Texas near the Louisiana border known as "The Golden Triangle." This region incubated the musical talents of Aubrey "Moon" Mullican, George Jones, Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, "Barbara Lynn" Ozen, Janis Joplin, Johnny Preston, Barbara Mauritz, and J.P. Richardson aka "The Big Bopper."

Meaux came of age at a time when commercial "terrestrial" radio stations were still independently owned and music programming decisions were made based on local sales figures. It was also a time in history when the frequency of a particular record's radio airplay could be monetarily manipulated by independent record producers and radio promoters.

"Is it true that payola is dead?" a young man asked Meaux in the lobby of the former Marriott Hotel in downtown Austin after he delivered a colorful keynote address at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in 1987. A puzzled-looking Meaux stared at the young man and replied, "Dead? I didn't even know it was sick, little bruddah."

Meaux's special talent in the music business was mastery over the discipline of A & R, or "artist and repertoire" as it was originally known. He had an uncanny knack for selecting the right musical material for the right recording artist to elicit the right vocal interpretation in the recording process.

The objective of this equation was to maximize the greatest profit potential for the master tape owner, the music publisher, the distributing label, the artist manager, and the booking agent. Then as now, it is to one's financial benefit to wear as many of these "hats" as legally possible, a business philosophy that Meaux subscribed to and practiced throughout his professional career.

Not all of the musical groups Meaux had under contract always agreed with or trusted Meaux's choice of material. A young, unknown singer from Rosenberg, Texas named Billy Joe Thomas who fronted a band called the Triumphs can still be heard complaining on the eight-track master recording to the studio engineer one evening: "Let's get this over with and record that damn song just to get Huey off my ass."

The selection he was referring to was "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," a song penned and originally recorded by Hank Williams. The B.J. Thomas version, released on Meaux's Pacemaker label and then licensed to New York's Scepter Records, reached the No. 8 position on Billboard's Hot 100 by March 1966, and stayed on the chart for 10 weeks before its demise.

Although Meaux was the proud father of an adopted son, he was known to brag about all the musicians and singers he nurtured throughout the years -- whom he also referred to as his sons. He especially spoke highly of Douglas Wayne Sahm and August "Augie" Meyers of San Antonio, and would always say, "I raised those boys."

Meaux would often recall the story of the hyperactive, multi-talented teenage Sahm who was always "pestering" Meaux to record his compositions. This relationship ultimately produced Texas' contribution to the "British Invasion" in the early 1960s with the creation of the Sir Douglas Quintet and the release of the single, "She's About a Mover." It was originally titled "She's a Body Mover," but Meaux believed the title sounded too sexually suggestive and made Sahm change it.

The Tribe/London release of this single reached the No. 13 position nationally by April 1965, and remained on Billboard's Hot 100 chart for nine weeks. "I love Doug like my own son," Meaux would always say about the late Doug Sahm, "but he was so mean to Augie. Doug used to make Augie carry all the equipment to the gigs and with his bad leg too," referring to Quintet collaborator and organist Meyers who was afflicted with polio as a child.

Left to right: Huey P.Meaux, Joe Nick Patoski, and The Rag Blog's Ivan Koop Kuper at KUT-FM in Austin, 1975. Photo by Kirby McDaniel.

Life and business were good for Meaux during the 1960s and many of the records he produced became hits. However, in October 1966, the winning streak was interrupted after Meaux and his then business partner, Charlie Booth, attended a disc jockey convention in Nashville accompanied by a 15-year-old girl. Their underage passenger was brought on the trip for the purpose of entertaining the conventioneers with whom they intended to network.

One year later, Meaux and Booth found themselves charged in federal court with conspiracy to transport a minor across state lines for the purpose of prostitution in violation of the Mann Act. Meaux and Booth appealed their case, and although they were represented by high-profile Houston attorney Percy Foreman, their rehearing was denied by the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.

In February 1968, Meaux was sentenced to three years in prison. He would only serve eight months at the low security Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville, Texas, near Dallas, before being released for good behavior.

In January 1981, at the end of his term as 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter granted Meaux a full pardon for his transgression. "That's when I went away to college," Meaux would always tell those who asked him about the time he spent in prison during this period.

Not all the hit records that Meaux is associated with were a direct result of his personal production efforts. Sometimes he acted as middleman and brokered the licensing deal to larger labels on behalf of other independent producers, as in the case of a track called "Tighten Up" by Archie Bell and the Drells.

Produced by legendary Houston DJ "Skipper" Lee Frazier, this track was licensed to Atlantic Records with Meaux's help after first being released in Houston on Frazier's Ovid label. Frazier, like most independent producers, would first sell his records on consignment to retailers "out of the trunk" before they were picked up for distribution by a larger label.

However, with the help of Atlantic Records, while Meaux was serving time in prison, this R&B crossover hit simultaneously reached the No. 1 position on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard R&B charts for two weeks by April 1968, and remained on the charts for 13 weeks.

"I first met Huey when I was a disc jockey with KCOH-AM radio in Houston," Frazier recalled.
He had a relationship with most the DJs in Houston and throughout the country for that matter, and Huey was always promoting his records to all the DJs. He was a very personable man and he would bring his records around to the station and ask me to play them.

We had a personal relationship, so when I recorded a record by a band I was managing and it started selling locally, Huey came to me and said, I think can get that record placed with Atlantic Records but I want a piece of the action. I told Huey I wouldn't mind that because I knew Huey had a good relationship with Atlantic because he recorded "You'll Lose a Good Thing" by Barbara Lynn, and I also knew that he knew everybody in that New York office.

So Atlantic took the record and boom, it went to number one on the R&B charts and then, boom, it became a million-seller. I found out years later that Huey knew how many records I was selling locally when he contacted me because he kept up with how many records I was ordering from the local record presser.

After Meaux was released from prison in 1968, the magic of producing another hit record eluded him for several years. Music industry insiders told him that he was "beating a dead horse" when he informed them he was thinking of recording "El Be Bop Kid," Baldemar Huerta from San Benito, Texas -- aka Freddy Fender.

"Before The Next Teardrop Falls," written by the Nashville songwriting team of Vivian Keith and Ben Peters, had been recorded more than a dozen times throughout the years, but had never struck gold. By the mid-1970s, Meaux's intuitive A&R talent was on target once again with his production of the sentimental bilingual ballad with its Tex-Mex flavor. Originally released on Meaux's Crazy Cajun label and then licensed to ABC/Dot, "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" would become a No. 1 crossover single on both the Pop and Country charts by March 1975, and would remain on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for another 15 weeks.

The single not only revived Fender's career, but it also won "Single of the Year" at the 9th Annual Country Music Association Awards in 1975. In addition, the composition also earned nominations for "Best Country Song" and "Best Country Vocal Performance" at the 18th Annual Grammy Awards in 1976.

In 1985, Meaux brokered his last major licensing deal for long-time friend and business associate Floyd Soileau of Ville Platte, Louisiana. Meaux had produced sessions for Soileau with artists Soileau had under contract beginning in the 1950s. In 1984, Soileau brought Meaux the single, "(Don't Mess With) My Toot Toot" that had broken out in New Orleans when recorded by Zydeco/R & B artist Rockin' Sydney Simien on Soileau's label, Maison de Soul.

Meaux arranged a licensing deal for Soileau that year with multinational Epic Records. Although never breaking into Billboard's Hot 100 Pop chart, the single did reach platinum status and peaked in the No. 19 position on Billboard's Country chart. "My Toot Toot" would also win a Grammy Award for Soileau and the late Sydney Simien for "Best Ethnic and Traditional Folk Record," in 1986.

1986 was also the year Meaux surprised friends and industry associates when he appeared on the big screen in the David Byrne feature-length movie True Stories. Meaux made a brief cameo appearance during the "Wild Wild Life" segment of the film, playing the role of a patois-speaking "Crazy Cajun" disc jockey.

Always generous with his time and advice, Meaux was also known to mentor aspiring young music producers because he believed his good deeds would be reciprocated and the relationships he developed would prove to be mutually beneficial. That was not the case however with ZZ Top personal manager and producer, Bill Ham.

Meaux was disappointed that Ham never booked studio time at his Sugar Hill Studios in Houston, choosing to record in Tyler, Texas, and Memphis instead. He would repay the snub in 1986 by suing Ham and ZZ Top for copyright infringement on behalf of Houston songwriter and former rock DJ, Linden Hudson.

Hudson's composition, "Thug," found its way onto the multi-platinum ZZ Top album, Eliminator, without the proper writer credit or music publisher credit which, coincidentally, was Crazy Cajun Music. With the assistance of Houston attorney David W. Showalter, Meaux and Hudson (and Showalter) were awarded a $600,000 out-of-court settlement in compensatory damages from Ham and that "Little Ol' Band from Texas."

Huey Meaux, Winnie, Texas, April 2011. Photo courtesy of Nick de la Torre.

In 1996, Meaux experienced his second major brush with the law. No one expected what a January 29 raid by Houston police on a backroom of Sugar Hill Studios, which Meaux now leased from its new owners, would reveal. There, HPD found incriminating evidence, including a gynecological examination table, illicit drugs, and photos and videotapes of underage girls in compromising positions.

Meaux would plead guilty to five felony charges including possession of cocaine, possession of child pornography, sexual assault, and jumping bail. The Honorable Judge Michael McSpadden of the 209th District Court of Harris County would assess his punishment at 15 years for cocaine possession and sexual assault, and 10 years for possession of child pornography and bail jumping, to be served concurrently.

However, before Meaux's criminal trial would begin, the two daughters of Meaux's former girlfriend filed a civil lawsuit for alleged sexual abuse and emotional distress they were subjected to during the seven years Meaux lived with them and their mother. In mid-February, the now adult McDowell Sisters, represented by attorney Dick Deguerin, brought a suit against Meaux in Harris County's 61st Civil District Court for the sum of 10 million dollars in punitive damages in their request for relief.

By October, the plaintiffs agreed on a final judgment of $900,000, and to dismiss all further claims against defendant Meaux.

In June 1996, Meaux was sent to prison for his criminal offenses and would remain incarcerated for the next six years. Meaux served time at both the privately owned Lockhart Work Facility near Austin, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Ellis Unit in Huntsville.

In September 2002, he was paroled to the Beaumont Center Halfway House, and was then placed on "house arrest" with his mobility restricted and was electronically monitored by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Meaux was looking forward to freedom after four years of enforced detention on the rural property he owned on the outskirts of Winnie -- where he had been living in his double-wide mobile home.

"I go to Beaumont every month now to see my probation officer and go shopping, but I'll be getting my ankle bracelet off March 4th," Meaux said during our last telephone conversation in January 2011. "The first thing I'm gonna do is go to New Orleans and get me some gumbo, and after that, I'm going to Austin to see some friends."

Meaux never made it to New Orleans or to Austin, and on April 23, 2011, at 82, after four months of poor health, Meaux died from multiple organ failure. Meaux was found in his double-wide trailer and scattered about the floor in no particular order were old boxes of magnetic recording tape and photographs that chronicled his 40-plus years in the music business.

Many friends and music industry associates chose to distance themselves from the controversial Meaux, and his funeral service at Broussard's Funeral Home was attended mainly by immediate family members.

However, even after death, the defiant self-proclaimed "producer extraordinaire" still had the ability to surprise and even shock those in attendance at Winnie's Fairview Cemetery. Inscribed on the back side of his "supersized" tombstone was a list of underwriters that Meaux had solicited during the time of his incarceration to help defray the cost of his funeral.

On the front side was inscribed an epitaph of Meaux's personal life philosophy: "Did It My Way - No Regrets - Love Ya - Bye Now - Huey." Once more Meaux was able to get in the last word, prove he was still an innovator and a proponent of crass commercialism who to the very end never showed any sign of remorse.

[Ivan Koop Kuper is a graduate student at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas, and maintains a healthy diet of music, media, and popular culture. From 1973-1975, Ivan worked with Huey P. Meaux at KPFT-FM in Houston. He can be reached at kuperi@stthom.edu. Find more articles by Ivan Koop Kuper on The Rag Blog.]

Photos courtesy of Hank Lam.

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