Wasted Days, Wasted Lives (Part I)
In the lobby of Sugar Hill Studios are two sets of display cases that until recently held various testimonials to Huey P. Meaux's improbable success in the music industry.
Prominently exhibited was the platinum record commemorating the million sales of "Before the Next Teardrop Falls," the Meaux-produced smash that revived the career of Chicano singer Freddy Fender back in 1975. Also on view were the gold records for "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and "Secret Love," two other big-selling hits that Meaux produced for Fender at Sugar Hill. There were other gold records -- for Archie Bell and the Drells' "Tighten Up," which Meaux had brought to the attention of Atlantic Records, and for Dale and Grace's "Leaving It All Up to You," a Meaux production that went to number one -- as well as additional mementos attesting to Meaux's achievements and associations in his four-decade career as a producer.
The Houston police officers who brought Meaux to Sugar Hill in the back of a squad car on January 26 hadn't come to gaze at the display. Acting on tips provided by estranged members of Meaux's extended family, they had obtained a warrant to search Sugar Hill and earlier had arrested the producer outside his Scarsdale-area home. Once inside Sugar Hill, the lawmen made their way past Studio B, where Meaux recorded so many of his hits, then proceeded through the lobby, past the display cases and back to the private office Meaux retained after selling Sugar Hill in 1986. There, they forced open a locked door and entered into what investigators say Meaux referred to as his "playroom." Inside were testimonials of an altogether different nature than the ones displayed out front.
Among the items police say they found in the playroom were a physician's examining table, complete with gynecological stirrups, and just under 15 grams of cocaine in one of the drawers. There were also a king-size bed and a dozen or so sex toys nearby. And strewn about the room and stuffed inside a large chest were hundreds of photographs and dozens of videos that police say Meaux had produced himself at Sugar Hill over the past 20 years. According to investigators, some of the photos were of nude girls as young as seven. Some of the videos showed Meaux having sex with girls ranging in age from 12 to 16, among them the two daughters of Meaux's former live-in girlfriend.
The 66-year-old Meaux was charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession of child pornography and two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. A few days later, he was slapped with a civil lawsuit by his two former common-law stepdaughters, who accused him of having sexually abused them for years. A frail, wasted-looking Meaux showed up for his court arraignment on January 31, but a few days later, he failed to keep an appointment to be fitted with an electronic monitoring device that a judge had ordered him to wear while out of jail on his $130,000 bond.
Huey Meaux was on the run, and he remains at large as of this writing.
In the wake of his arrest and flight, some of Meaux's former associates were puzzled. Sure, they knew him as the fun-loving, wild-ass "Crazy Cajun," who, even in his advanced years, still liked young girls and good times. But few of them claim to have had any idea that he might have liked them that young, or that he was crazy in that way.
Some of those closest to Meaux, however, now say they knew or had long suspected there was another, darker side to the Crazy Cajun. And in the end, it was one of them -- maybe the one person Huey Meaux really loved -- who helped to bring him down.
Huey Purvis Meaux was born March 10, 1929, and raised on the prairie outside of Kaplan, Louisiana, a small town about 25 miles southwest of Lafayette. He grew up in a shotgun shack, speaking French and listening to his father play the Cajun accordion. For a time, Meaux played drums in a band that included his brother and his dad, Stanislauf Meaux. His father made his living shucking rice, and when Huey was 12, his family moved across the Sabine to the rice fields near Winnie, a speck on the map between Houston and Beaumont off of what is now I-10. According to whichever interview you believe, Meaux either never made it past the fifth grade or just barely graduated from high school. His recollection of his education seems to have changed to fit the occasion.
In a deposition he gave in 1991 for a lawsuit he brought against Polygram Records, Meaux said he enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from high school in 1946. Upon completion of a two-year hitch in Germany, he returned to Southeast Texas and enrolled at the Modern Barber College in Houston. A short, stocky man with black hair that he slicked straight back, Meaux said he took up barbering because "people always grow hair." A barber shop was also a good place "to find out what was going on -- who was beating the hell out of who," explained Meaux, a natural raconteur who loved to entertain with his earthy stories.
While he cut hair, Meaux also kept a hand in music. In addition to playing with his relatives, he briefly fronted a band known as Huey Meaux and the Rambling Aces. Even then, Meaux knew what good music was -- and he knew that his wasn't. Still, he wanted something that would keep him next to the sound. So he began producing -- although, at the time, he didn't know that was what he was doing.
"When I started, there was no such animal as producer," Meaux said during his deposition. "I just loved to make records that made people happy."
At first, Meaux combined his tonsorial and musical talents by hosting a weekly remote broadcast on Port Arthur's KPAC radio out of his barber shop in Winnie. It was a wild affair that featured live music and Meaux's infectious, nonstop, mush-mouthed banter. Whether on or off the air, Meaux always seemed to be cranked into fourth or fifth gear. Listeners began referring to him as "the Crazy Cajun," and the name stuck.
"This is the Crazy Cajun come talkin' atcha!" Meaux would howl to open his broadcast each Saturday afternoon at four. As the show progressed, Meaux began recording the bands that came to the barber shop to play their songs. He also started shopping the sounds of those regional acts to other radio stations -- acts like blues singers Barbara Lynn and Big Sambo Young. If, as he claimed, Meaux really didn't know what he was doing, he did a good job of faking it.
In 1959, Meaux produced Jivin' Gene Bourgeois' Breaking Up Is Hard to Do at the KPAC studios. The record was archetypal of what rock and roll historians would later label "Swamp Pop," a citified and smoothed-over updating of the "chanky-chank" Cajun music Meaux had heard and played as a child. Meaux had a hit on his hands. Although the 45 originally appeared on Jin Records, which Meaux owned with partner Floyd Soileau of Floyd's Record Shop in Ville Platte, the song was picked up and distributed nationally by Mercury Records -- quite an accomplishment for a barber from Winnie with little education and no formal training.
Other Meaux-produced hits followed in rapid succession: "I'm a Fool to Care" by Joe Barry; "You'll Lose a Good Thing" by Barbara Lynn, a black woman from Beaumont; "Talk to Me" by Sunny and the Sunliners, a Mexican-American band from San Antonio; and later, "She's About a Mover," a churning, organ-driven romp by the Sir Douglas Quintet, a band of Anglos and Chicanos out of the Alamo City fronted by a lanky white boy named Doug Sahm.
Although the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles era of rock and roll is usually derided as a fallow one, there was some fine music produced during those years. It was a great, crazy time, when Top 40 radio knew no racial or ethnic boundaries. And Meaux was doing what came naturally, producing Gulf Coast music that crossed borders: between Texas and Louisiana and Texas and Mexico, between black and white and brown. It was a soulful, earthy sound that made you want to lose your inhibitions -- to dance or to, as Meaux once put it when describing the music of zydeco king Clifton Chenier, "tear your heart out by the roots."
But Huey Meaux, claims one person who was close to him during those years, was already crossing one border that most people never approach.
The late 1950s and early '60s were also a heady time for Georgia LaPoint.
Huey Meaux was LaPoint's stepfather, and as his reputation spread, musicians from across Texas and south Louisiana would travel to Winnie to party and play with the gregarious barber-turned-hit maker. Joe Barry, Frog Man Henry, B.J. Thomas, Freddy Fender and Doug Sahm were all regular visitors to Meaux's small home. In 1965, after the success of "She's About a Mover," the 17-year-old LaPoint even served as president of the Sir Douglas Quintet Fan Club, which required that she and her sister spend much of their spare time answering the group's fan mail.
LaPoint's mother, Hilda, had married Meaux in December 1954, when LaPoint was six and her sister was three. Her mother worked, and LaPoint says when she wasn't in school, her stepfather would take her with him to his barber shop, standing her on the front seat of his car next to him as he drove. Along the way, LaPoint says, Meaux would force her to look at pornographic cartoons he would place on the front seat. In the middle of the night, she says, she would awaken to find Meaux fondling her.
LaPoint says she remained quiet about the abuse, which stopped when she was 12. It was not until last year that LaPoint says she finally told her mother. (Hilda Meaux, who now lives in El Paso and is still legally married to Meaux, did not respond to calls from the Press. Last week she initiated divorce proceedings against Meaux.) "I was a six-year-old," says LaPoint. "What does a child of six do? This was my mother's new husband."
Since her stepfather's arrest, LaPoint has spoken with Houston police investigators, who say her story sounds credible.
Although he never threatened to harm her, LaPoint says Meaux manipulated and controlled her, and ensured her silence, by constantly making it clear who was paying the bills. And while he provided them with the basic necessities, LaPoint says she, her mother and her sister lived like paupers while Meaux lived like a king, especially after the money from the record deals started rolling in.
"I don't know what went through my mother's mind [when she married Meaux]," says LaPoint. "He was vulgar, he wasn't faithful and he had a filthy mouth. Maybe she felt trapped, too."
Georgia LaPoint, who still lives in Winnie, wasn't saddened to learn of her stepfather's arrest.
"He's always been a very warped, perverted man," says LaPoint, "and he still is."
If he was a tightwad at home, Meaux was a charitable presence in the larger world. He loved to give gifts, and he worked at cultivating his image as a generous man. If someone were sick, Meaux could always be counted on to come up with a few hundred bucks to help them through the bad days.
In one fondly recalled episode, Meaux showed up just before Christmas Day of 1976 at KPFT, the listener-supported radio station in Houston where he had hosted a weekly music program a few years earlier. In those days, KPFT didn't always meet its payroll, and the handful of employees and most of the legions of volunteers were usually broke. But Meaux was flush that Christmas from Freddy Fender's comeback, and as he strolled through the KPFT studios and offices, he produced a roll of bills from his coat pocket and handed $50 bills to everyone he met.
Meaux would often boast of the times he had signed a musician to a contract, advanced him some money and gotten him a gig if he were out of work. No doubt many of the artists entered into their deals with Meaux with their eyes wide open, and, at the time, were grateful for the opportunity. No doubt many profited from their dealings with the producer.
But Meaux was far from the one-man musicians' benevolent society he portrayed himself to be. Many of the folks who had financial dealings with Meaux considered him to be one of the biggest cutthroats in the music business. A promoter who worked with Meaux in the early to mid-'60s says the Crazy Cajun was notorious for contracts that would suck musicians dry. In the late 1950s, for instance, Meaux reportedly bought the rights to Big Sambo's song "The Rains Came" for $25. A few years later, Meaux's investment paid off handsomely for himself -- not Big Sambo -- when he pulled the song out of the vault and had the Sir Douglas Quintet record it as the follow-up to "She's About a Mover."
"Huey had control over when you got to pee," says Steve Gladson of Bread and Butter Productions. Gladson recalls once overhearing Meaux negotiate the closing of a contract with a blues artist over the telephone. As he sat in his office at Gold Star Studios, Meaux was momentarily silent as he listened to the questions from the other end of the line. Soon, says Gladson, Meaux resumed talking, telling the musician that the purpose of paragraph 19 was so that there would be no blank space between paragraphs 18 and 20.
"That's just the kind of guy he was," Gladson says.
But in the early 1960s, Huey was the one guy in Houston in a position to cut deals, as bad as they may have been, because Meaux was the only producer in town making any money. Part of the reason for Meaux's financial success was his undeniable, instinctive knack for picking a hit.
And while Meaux never admitted to paying anyone to play his records, he did make contingency plans just in case anyone suspected him of doing so. In a 1991 interview with local music historian Andrew Brown, Meaux said he intentionally made his trail of production hard to follow. Federal authorities had been busting disc jockeys and record producers around the county in the payola scandal of the late '50s and early '60s. Meaux bragged to Brown that he was able to avoid the feds' attention by spreading his artists over several different labels, all of which he owned.
"If there had been a chart that had, say, seven Crazy Cajun songs on it," Meaux told Brown, "the government would have said, 'We need to go after this motherfucker.' So I just changed the labels around, so that if the government got a record chart, they would only see one or two songs on Crazy Cajun. They didn't know that eight others were mine, too."
But Meaux would eventually attract the attention of the federal government, though not for his music productions.
Like most American rock and roll producers, Meaux was caught flatfooted by the stateside arrival of the Beatles in early 1964 and the rest of the British invasion that followed, which sent their own homegrown acts plummeting off the charts. But Meaux was determined to discover the secret of that English beat. Although it sounds like a bit of self-mythologizing apocrypha, Meaux claims to have stuffed his car with Beatles records and Thunderbird wine and driven to the Wayfare Motel in San Antonio. There, he rented three rooms, opened all the connecting doors and sat in the middle one, listening to the music and drinking wine until he got "skunk drunk."
"Then it dawned on me that they were playing the Lake Charles two-step that me and my daddy used to play in Cajun country," Meaux explained during the deposition he gave for his suit against Polygram.
Meaux then called Doug Sahm.
"I said, 'Bring your guitar and come over, Doug. I'm drunk, but I've got that beat.' And that's how we got off into 'She's About a Mover.' "
In 1965, Meaux recorded Sahm and his band doing "She's About a Mover" at Gold Star Studios, the facility in southeast Houston that Meaux would later buy and rename Sugar Hill. Meaux also convinced Sahm and the other members of the band to pretend to be English. To enhance the ruse, Meaux decided to have the 45 distributed by London Records, instead of one of his own labels. The plan worked -- "She's About a Mover" was a hit and is still played frequently on oldies stations. But by 1966, Meaux was struggling to get his other artists on the air. One of his efforts to win them airplay gave the world outside the music industry its first glimpse of the other side of Huey Meaux.
In October of that year, Meaux attended a convention of country-and-western disc jockeys in Nashville. To entertain the conventioneers, he brought along a prostitute. The travel arrangements were made at Meaux's behest by an 18-year-old disc jockey's assistant at a Houston radio station.
"Huey called and asked if I knew any party girls," recalls Meaux's contact, who agreed to be interviewed for this story on the condition that his name not be revealed. "He said he was going to the convention because he was hurting financially, so I got the girl."
Eager to please the local music legend, the kid convinced a 16-year-old hanger-on at the radio station to accompany Meaux to the Nashville convention for $300. Unfortunately for Meaux, not long after the convention ended, his contact was busted on narcotics charges. The young man cut a deal with the authorities to have the drug charges dropped in return for telling them what he knew about Meaux and the underage girl.
"I regret giving up Huey," says the man, who now works in Houston for a charity organization. "I was just a kid and was easily manipulated by the police."
Meaux pleaded innocent. But in 1967, he, promoter Charlie Booth and the teenage middle-man were all convicted of conspiring to violate the White Slave Traffic Act. Each was sentenced to three years in federal prison. The liner notes of an album he later produced say Meaux served 14 months at a federal correctional facility in Texarkana, where he cut hair at the prison barber shop. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Meaux was incarcerated for eight months at a federal facility in Seagoville, Texas. Wherever he did his time, ten years after his conviction, Meaux received a full pardon from President Carter.
Meaux rarely discussed the experience. On the occasions when he did, Meaux would refer to his imprisonment in a sort of code, recalling the days "when I had to go do that time at college." One exception was for an interview he gave in 1987 to the University of Texas Center for American History. During the rambling Q&A, Meaux took up the tangential topic of politicians who had recently been in trouble and claimed their actions had been a mistake.
"Mine wasn't a mistake," he said. "I did it because I wanted to do it."
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