Huey P. Meaux:
The Crazy Cajun
Huey P. Meaux
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.
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
Mullican, and disc jockey J. P. Richardson, a.k.a. the Big
Bopper. 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
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,
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.
Huey P. Meaux with Jane Doe
and Sunny Azuma
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
and the Sunliners broke the racial barrier on television's American
Bandstand by performing a bluesy version of Little Willie
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.
"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
Doug Kershaw, Clifton
Chenier, Big Mama
Hopkins, Archie Bell
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.
Leo O'Neil, Huey P. Meaux and Micky Moody
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.
One night when I was in the studio watching him do his radio show, he
auditioned two new singles he'd just released on his Crazy Cajun label--Country
Ways, by Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley
Austin; and Before the Next Teardrop Falls, by Freddy
a fifties-era Tex-Mex rocker from San Benito. 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.
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.
Nick Patoski, Sex, Drugs, And
Rock & Roll, Texas Monthly,
May, 1996 - Vol. 24, Issue 5, p. 116 (10 pp.)