Wasted Days, Wasted Lives (Part II)
After his release from prison in 1969, Meaux seemed to be a changed man. According to associates at the time, it wasn't a change for the better.
"Huey came out of prison with a lot of new friends," recalls promoter Steve Gladson. "It was very intimidating for a lot of us. We had never met convicted murderers."
And it seemed more difficult than ever to deal with Meaux. Making an appointment with the producer was like trying to obtain an audience with the Pope.
Ironically, Meaux exited the pen in better financial shape than when he had gone in. While "doing that time at college," he had continued to collect royalties on the records he had produced prior to his conviction. His nest egg allowed Meaux to weather the long dry spell before his next big hit and gave him the means, two years after his release, to buy Gold Star Studios.
Housed in a warehouse-like building at 5626 Brock, in a primarily residential area not far from the University of Houston's central campus, Gold Star was the studio where George Jones' "White Lightnin' " and the original version of "From a Jack to a King" were recorded. In the early '60s, after leaving KPAC, Meaux cut many of his sessions at facilities in New Orleans. But just prior to his trouble with the law, he had been using the studio on Brock. He felt comfortable there.
Meaux also returned to his radio roots after getting out of prison. From KPFT's small studio in the since-demolished Atlanta Life Building on Prairie Street, Huey combined his taste in music with his new appreciation for life behind bars. Fortified with a control room full of distilled spirits and sometimes, according to those who were there, various forms of contraband, the new "Crazy Cajun Show" aired every Friday night. The show always started with a fast song and picked up speed from there. At some point, Meaux would pause to read letters the station received from its listeners in prison.
While Meaux was working to re-establish himself, Tex-Mex singer Freddy Fender was attempting to revive his own career. Like Meaux, Fender was an ex-con, having served time at Angola State Prison in Louisiana for a pot bust in the early '60s. Fender and Meaux had known each other for years but had never collaborated. At a dead end in his career, Fender turned to Meaux. He would later say that he had felt that he could trust Huey, since they had both been to prison.
At the time, there weren't a whole lot of people knocking on Meaux's door, either. He didn't have any money to pay musicians to come into the studio to play with Fender, but he did have some instrumental tracks in the vault. Among them was a song called "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." Although Fender complained to Meaux that he couldn't "sing that gringo shit," Meaux convinced Fender to lay down some vocals over the canned music. For the B-side, Meaux scraped together some musicians to back Fender on his old standard, "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights."
Meaux pressed the 45 on his Crazy Cajun label and convinced disc jockey Joe Ladd to play both sides on KIKK. Because of the single's popularity on Houston radio, Nashville got interested. The record was distributed nationally and went to number one.
Meaux was at the pinnacle of his professional success, but police say that it was about this time his personal life was taking on an even darker tone, which they say would not be fully exposed to the light for two more decades.
As "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" was moving up the charts, Meaux was developing a relationship with a woman named Nancy Haritos. In 1979, Meaux and Haritos and her two young daughters moved into a two-story house Meaux had purchased in the newly developed subdivision of Scarsdale, not far from Ellington Air Force Base. On the surface, their life was the picture of suburban bliss.
But according to the lawsuit filed against Meaux a few days after his arrest last month, life at the Meaux household was anything but. Haritos' 26-year-old daughter, Shannon McDowell Brasher, claims that from the time she was nine until she was 16, Meaux sexually assaulted her, allowed others to do the same, and recorded the assaults on videotape.
Brasher says Meaux controlled her by getting her hooked on cocaine and threatening to hurt her if she told anyone. Brasher's younger sister, Stacy McDowell, subsequently joined Brasher in the lawsuit, claiming she, too, had been abused by Meaux.
The allegations of heavy drug use surprised some of Meaux's friends. The notion that Meaux liked young girls did not.
"Everybody knew Huey loved pussy, especially young pussy," says an acquaintance. "Hell, I think Huey may have loved young pussy more than he loved money. And he really loved money. But I never had any idea that he liked them that young."
Of course, the friend also recalls visiting Sugar Hill in 1975. On that occasion, Meaux pulled out a videotape of a large dog fornicating with a woman.
"That's something, ain't it," the acquaintance recalls Meaux saying.
Friends of Meaux also find it confusing that during the time he was allegedly molesting his girlfriend's daughters, he was undergoing a seemingly positive metamorphosis.
Shortly after moving to Scarsdale, Meaux and Haritos adopted a little boy. At the time, Meaux, who was still married to Hilda, told his friends the child had been born to a young woman from Lafayette, the daughter of a friend, who could not afford to take care of him. Meaux named the child Ben William, and those who knew him well say they had never seen Meaux happier. Georgia LaPoint, Meaux's stepdaughter from his marriage to Hilda, says Ben was the son Huey had always wanted.
"We all thought he had changed his life when he adopted Ben," says Gladson, the promoter who has known Meaux for 30 years. "He had pictures [of Ben] in his wallet. The whole thing. All of a sudden, he was a nice guy. He was a little sweeter."
But the McDowell sisters now say that Meaux's act at home hadn't changed since he had lived with Georgia LaPoint and her mother in Winnie 20 years earlier. Even after Meaux and Nancy Haritos broke up, Shannon and Stacy continued to see Meaux. Their attorney says Shannon was especially susceptible to Meaux's spell because of the cocaine.
"She is going to need years of counseling," says lawyer Dick DeGuerin. "You are looking at a girl who has been sexually abused almost all her life. She is going to need years of therapy before she recovers, if she ever recovers."
And Houston police say Shannon was far from alone.
For the past month, investigators with the department's juvenile sex crimes division have been reviewing the approximately 200 videotapes and 1,000 photographs confiscated during the raid on Meaux's office. Police say the videotapes have been particularly helpful in their probe, since each is imprinted with the date it was made. The earliest was filmed in 1975; the most recent was shot in 1994. Detectives have identified at least 30 of the girls in what they say was Meaux's homemade collection. Since some of the tapes were made more than ten years earlier, the statue of limitations on those crimes has expired.
Police say some of the girls were seduced by the hope that Meaux would make them a star, others through his social and monetary friendships with them and their families. But it was the coke that kept them coming back.
"It all came down to the cocaine," says Dwayne Wright of the juvenile sex crimes division. "That was their payment for the videos and the sex acts. They knew that's what he wanted."
In addition to their need for the drug, the girls all shared an eventual hatred of the record producer, Wright says.
"The general consensus of all the girls was that they found him repulsive. They didn't want to be around him. If they had to be seen in public with him, they were very embarrassed."
But people who knew Meaux say it wasn't unusual for the producer to be seen in public with a young girl on his arm. A friend of Meaux's, who asked that his name not be used, recalls a time when Meaux was in Austin for the annual South by Southwest music convention. The friend accompanied Huey and a young female companion of indeterminate age to the Sixth Street club scene, where Meaux insisted they all go to a disco.
"It was a fucking discotheque, so I was already uncomfortable," says the man. "And he kept trying to get me to get up and dance with his girlfriend. And I kept telling him that I wasn't a dancer. So he finally made her get up and dance by herself. And while he was sitting there watching her he kept saying shit like, 'Yeah, look at dat. M-m-m-h!' It was so fucking embarrassing. It was the sleaze factor that would always kind of temper your enthusiasm."
By the early 1980s, the sleaze factor was too much for live-in girlfriend Nancy Haritos, who took her daughters and moved out of Meaux's Scarsdale home. Although he retained custody of Ben, Meaux, by all accounts, slipped into a state of depression and idleness that he apparently never fully snapped out of. Although he would have some limited success with Rockin' Sidney Simien's "My Toot Toot" in 1983, after that he mostly recorded local acts with little chance of going anywhere.
"It's just me and Ben now," a melancholy Meaux would tell visitors to the studios.
The fire was gone. Huey was all but retired. Instead of looking for his next hit, Meaux starting buying the rights to songs that were already hits. He claimed, for instance, to have bought the rights to Desi Arnaz's "Babalu" and boasted that the song netted him $12,000 a year; he also reportedly owns a good portion of soul singer Isaac Hayes' 1970s output.
In 1986, Meaux sold Sugar Hill for $175,000 but continued to keep an office there. He began to devote more attention to managing and marketing the songs in his extensive catalog. He eventually filed his suit against Polygram Records, claiming the company owed him $10 million in royalties that had not been paid by Mercury Records, which Polygram had purchased. He also sought the return of master recordings of almost the entire Sir Douglas collection, as well as works by the Trashmen, Jivin' Gene, the Hombres, Barbara Lynn, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Junior Parker, Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams Jr. Meaux had recorded all of them on Tribe, one of his many labels. A federal judge dismissed much of the suit due to the statute of limitations, but Polygram did agree to pay Meaux a settlement of less than $1 million and returned some of the masters.
Meaux also set out to settle an old score. The eventual victory would be a personal point of pride for years.
In the late 1960s, before he was sent to prison, Meaux had developed an interest in a couple of Houston musicians -- Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard -- who, under the guidance of promoter Bill Hamm, went on to be mega-stars as two-thirds of ZZ Top. Meaux always felt he had been unfairly denied a piece of the Top. Whenever Hamm's name came up, Meaux would recall that he had known Hamm "when he was still packing meat."
"Huey felt betrayed by Bill Hamm," says Texas Monthly writer Joe Nick Patoski, who probably knew Meaux better -- or at least he thought he did -- than any music journalist besides the late Bob Claypool.
So when an opportunity to get back at Hamm presented itself, Meaux jumped.
Linden Hudson started in the music business in 1970 as a rock and roll disc jockey and went on to work as a studio engineer and develop a friendship with ZZ Top's Beard. Hudson also occasionally wrote a few songs, one of which, "Thug," found its way onto Top's 1983 album Eliminator -- without Hudson's being credited as the author. Hudson was more hurt than angry, and he let the slight slide. One day at Sugar Hill, where he worked for Meaux for five years on a contract basis, Hudson mentioned that he had not been paid for the song, which was on an album that eventually went platinum. Hudson says his story immediately brought dollar signs to Meaux's eyes.
"I tell you what we're gonna do, bruddah," Hudson recalls Meaux saying. "Sign right here."
For a percentage of the take, Meaux acquired an attorney for Hudson, who filed a lawsuit against Hamm and the band. Hudson eventually agreed to a settlement of $600,000. After expenses, attorney fees and Meaux's cut, he pocketed $188,000. Hudson was not especially pleased with that breakdown of the proceeds.
"Huey has a strange way of treating his friends," he says.
Of all the things that have been said about Huey Meaux since his arrest last month, the one his friends and associates have the most trouble accepting is the police characterization of him as a heavy drug user.
"Huey was very anti-drugs," says Bobby Winder, a Baytown pawnshop owner who has known Meaux since Winder was 23 years old and in a band called the Mark James Four. In 1963, Meaux produced the band's "Running Back" as a single. The record never went anywhere, but Meaux and Winder became good friends, and remained so. Winder says Meaux was just too tight with his cash to waste it on cocaine.
"I only saw Huey take drugs one time -- when he was in the hospital after a car wreck in 1993," Winder says, tears welling in his eyes. "This just doesn't make any sense."
Others who knew Meaux also find it hard to believe that he was a drug addict. But Houston Police Department investigator Wright is adamant that Meaux is a serious cokehead.
"When we told the girls how much cocaine we found in his office, they were astonished that was all we found," says Wright.
Linden Hudson, who worked for Meaux at Sugar Hill from 1981 through 1986, when Meaux sold the studios, says he helped the producer record "anybody who came in off the street." He also installed security equipment, including cameras and monitors, at Sugar Hill, as well as Meaux's home. Hudson says it was obvious that the increasingly paranoid producer was wired on something much of time. In the studio, Meaux would at times become agitated and incoherent. His mouth was often dry and he was constantly smacking his lips -- telltale signs of cocaine use.
Meaux made it clear to Hudson that he guarded his privacy. There were certain boundaries that Hudson learned not to cross. Meaux's office, and the area beyond, were off-limits. Although Hudson never saw many women at the studio, he says Meaux would occasionally have young female visitors. Hudson assumed they were friends of his common-law stepdaughters.
"He would say, 'Bruddah, when I'm having a little party back dere, don't disturb me,' " says Hudson.
After his arrest, most of Meaux's neighbors in middle-class Scarsdale said they were surprised, as neighbors usually are. Meaux was friendly, they said, but he kept to himself. In retrospect, though, a few of them say they now see that something wasn't quite right at the Meaux household.
A teenager who lives next door says Meaux would pay him $80 a week to feed his dog when the producer went to Mexico, which he frequently did. When Meaux returned, he always seemed paranoid and wanted to know if the kid had noticed anyone suspicious around his house. Neighbors thought it strange that Meaux had a security camera on his roof. They also had seen little of Ben Meaux in the year and a half before his adopted father's arrest.
After the breakup with Nancy Haritos, Meaux consoled himself by spoiling Ben, friends say. The refrigerator was always well-stocked with goodies, and Ben had all the latest high-tech toys and video games scattered about their house. Meaux often took his son with him to Sugar Hill. But as Ben entered adolescence, his relationship with Huey began to sour.
At first, the trouble was the kind that often occurs between a father and a teenage son. But the conflicts escalated.
"Ben bowed up at Huey one time," says Meaux's longtime friend Bobby Winder. Meaux was so upset that he began shopping around for a military-style private school for his son. But Ben had different ideas.
In October 1994, Ben made his own run, surfacing in Meaux's hometown of Winnie. He was taken in by Georgia LaPoint. Since her mother is still legally married to Meaux, LaPoint had stayed in contact with the producer "for family purposes, whatever family there was." LaPoint was sympathetic to Ben's problems with his father. She could see the anger and the hatred Ben had for Meaux; she had known those same feelings herself.
"Ben was smart," says LaPoint. "The message he was getting from Huey was different than the one Huey was living."
But LaPoint also realized that Ben was a wild child in his own right. After five months of fighting with both Ben and Huey, who wanted Ben to come home, LaPoint had enough and sent the boy back to Houston. For a few months, Ben resumed living with his father. It wasn't like old times. LaPoint and others say Meaux actually came to fear Ben after a heated argument during which the lanky 15-year-old pulled a knife on his dad.
Houston police, however, say Meaux had an entirely different reason for fearing Ben.
In 1980, Huey's name had surfaced during an investigation of blues producer Roy Ames, who was subsequently convicted on federal charges of distributing child pornography. Meaux was never arrested or charged in the case, but the Houston Police Department became aware of his name and a possible connection to Ames. So last September, when detectives received a call claiming that Meaux was producing child pornography, they were more than a little intrigued -- especially since the tipster was Ben Meaux.
After his return to Houston last February, Ben's older female friends began to tell him things about his father, police say. He heard their stories about sexual molestations, the drugs, the playroom and the photographs and tapes. Ben, according to police, then began snooping around the house and the studio. Last August, he confronted Meaux. Huey immediately began making arrangements for Ben to be shipped off to a private school in Tucson. Before he could get the boy out of town, Ben called the police, but then got cold feet.
"Ben was going to give us a videotape, which we could have used for probable cause to get a warrant," says Wright, HPD's lead investigator in the case. "But Ben got scared and didn't want to talk anymore. And we couldn't get a warrant based on just what he was saying."
Wright could do nothing but wait. Five months later, he got lucky.
In January, apparently unaware that Ben had already reported Meaux to the authorities, Shannon McDowell Brasher went to see the police. During an interview at HPD's substation on Mykawa Road, she told Wright of the sexual abuse she claimed that Meaux had inflicted upon her, her sister and dozens of other young girls for years.
She also told him of the tapes and photos, described what was on them and where they could be found. Wright says police called Brasher's sister for confirmation, and her story was identical. Even though they filed a lawsuit against Meaux shortly after his arrest, Wright is convinced that the sisters had not consulted prior to Brasher's coming forward. Wright also says he is equally certain that Brasher had no knowledge of their initial tip from Ben several months earlier.
"Shannon was shocked when she found that Ben had come to us first," says Wright. "I kept it quiet until she made the statement that she hadn't seen Ben since September."
Why did Brasher decide to come forward when she did? Police say she simply needed to tell someone what Meaux had done to her.
Still, some of Meaux's friends say the timing of all the stories is too coincidental not to have been orchestrated. In fact, pawnbroker Bobby Winder believes that the desire for money and Meaux's stepdaughter, Georgia LaPoint, are behind Meaux's downfall.
Winder says Meaux had told him that LaPoint had been trying to cause trouble between Meaux and his estranged wife Hilda for years. But considering the Meaux have been separated for at least 20 years and that Huey had lived with another woman with whom he had adopted a son, it would seem Meaux needed little help when it came to creating marital problems. And even if Meaux's family members were conspiring against him for financial reasons, the evidence against him, according to police, is still overwhelming.
Armed with a search warrant naming Ben Meaux, Shannon McDowell Basher and Stacy McDowell as informants, Wright and other officers finally moved in on the Crazy Cajun. Because of the surveillance camera Meaux deployed on the roof of 11103 Sage Orchard Court, a plainclothes officer in an unmarked car was stationed down the street. After Meaux left his house, the officer notified officers in nearby patrol units, who pulled Meaux over as he was driving away in his ten-year-old Mercedes.
Meaux was placed in a patrol car and driven to Sugar Hill, where police executed the search warrant. As the officers made their way into the "playroom," Wright waited in the lobby area. It was a nervous few moments for the investigator, who feared that Meaux might have moved his stash. After the officers found what Wright hoped they would find, he went back outside to inform Meaux that he was under arrest and that police were confiscating his collection of videotapes and photographs of underage girls.
"He looked at me and said, 'Some might not be and some might,' " says Wright. "I don't think he thought that any of these girls would ever come forward, since he had intimidated them for so many years."
On the day of his arraignment, Huey Meaux sat next to the wall on the last row of Judge Michael McSpadden's 209th District Court. Dressed in a brown leather jacket, brown slacks and a striped shirt, Meaux bore no resemblance to the high-energy, hit-making record producer he had once been. What was left of his hair was still combed straight back, but it was graying and unkempt. His face was puffy and pasty.
At the time of his arrest, Meaux was charged only with possession of child pornography and possession of a controlled substance. Since the alleged abuse of Stacy McDowell and Shannon McDowell Brasher had occurred more than ten years ago, authorities were initially unable to file child abuse charges against Meaux. But the following week, another of Meaux's alleged victims came forward -- so far, she has not been identified -- and he was charged with two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. The bond on the four charges totaled $130,000. McSpadden ordered Meaux not to leave Harris County, to submit to weekly drug testing and to show up the following Monday to be fitted with an electronic monitoring device that would be strapped to one of Meaux's ankles.
February 5 came and went without Meaux's reporting to the probation department. When police went to his home, they were told by neighbors that several young men had been seen moving furniture out of Meaux's house over the weekend. Since Meaux had not been asked to surrender his passport and had access to considerable funds, investigators feared that Meaux was on the run. Their fears were confirmed when Meaux failed to appear in court as ordered two days later.
The legendary Crazy Cajun was now a fugitive. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and his physical description was wired to law enforcement agencies and airports around the world. Bondsman Edd Blackwood, whose company had posted Meaux's bail, set about distributing wanted posters, hired a bounty hunter and offered a reward of up to $10,000 for Meaux's capture.
Meaux was believed to be traveling with a man by the name of James Davis, who police say served time in state prison for passing bad checks and was once arrested on a "morals charge." Police say they now know where Davis is and believe he knows where Meaux is hiding.
Since Meaux has property in Mexico and reported bank accounts in Switzerland, it was initially believed that he had fled the country and was either south of the border or in Europe. But investigators are re-evaluating that theory after an incident that occurred this month.
On February 9, attorney Guy Hopkins filed an application in Montgomery County courts to have himself appointed as Ben Meaux's temporary guardian. Hopkins then arranged for another lawyer, Elizabeth Woodward, to go to Tucson in an effort to have Ben sign papers consenting to the guardianship appointment.
After arriving at Ben's school, according to Houston police, a woman accompanying Woodward tried to get the boy to sign the affidavit. But Ben was suspicious, and after finding a reason to excuse himself, he telephoned HPD's Wright back in Houston. The officer told Ben to jump out of a window if he was near one, and run for help. Ben did what he was told. By the time Tucson police arrived, the women had disappeared.
DeGuerin describes the episode as a kidnap attempt, but Hopkins, through his own attorney, calls that allegation outrageous and says he was simply trying to ensure that Ben's share of his father's estate is not depleted in litigation. A state district judge recently granted a temporary injunction blocking Meaux or any of his associates from liquidating his property. (One estimate pegs Meaux's net worth at $35 million. When asked if that figure were in the ballpark, Meaux's accountant replied, "That's somebody else's ballpark.")
Hopkins also insists he's had no contact with Meaux since he took flight, although the guardianship application was filed with the Montgomery County Clerk two days after Meaux was declared a fugitive.
Officer Wright says he's satisfied, for the time being, with Hopkins' explanation. "They say their only interest is in Ben and that they want to take care of Ben," says Wright. "We're still looking into that interest. And we better find out that is their total interest."
After a three-hour meeting last week in a Montgomery County courtroom, attorneys for Hopkins and Children's Protective Services of Harris County agreed to allow the lawyer to continue to temporarily serve as Ben's guardian -- with the stipulation that the boy remain in the custody of CPS.
Wright declines to say whether the incident in Tucson has changed his mind about Meaux's whereabouts. DeGuerin, who is trying to ensure that Meaux doesn't shelter money that may eventually be awarded to his clients, is convinced Meaux hasn't gone far.
Some of Huey's old friends believe the same.
The day after Meaux officially became a fugitive, a rumor circulated that he had been seen on a gambling boat in Lake Charles, where he supposedly tried to sell a stranger his watch. Police say the report was bogus. However, those who know him well believe it's possible that Meaux might have returned to the area where he was born and raised.
"Huey believed that in life that you did a favor for a favor," says one friend. "And Huey did those people over there a lot of favors over the years. Maybe he's collecting on them now."
In the days following his arrest, the gold and platinum records, along with the other treasures of Huey Meaux's career, were quietly removed from the display cases in the lobby of Sugar Hill Studios and packed away. The owners of the studio went out of their way to dissociate themselves from Meaux, pointing out to anyone who would listen that he simply was leasing space from them and that they had no idea what he might have been doing in the room behind his office. Their concern was understandable: several bands canceled recording sessions at Sugar Hill after Meaux's arrest.
All of that gave lie to something Huey Meaux said to a reporter at Sugar Hill 13 years ago. The interview had concluded, but Meaux decided he had something else to say and asked the reporter to turn his tape recorder back on. What Meaux wanted to add for posterity was his observation that colleagues in the music industry had become more accepting of an artist's personal indiscretions since he had started out.
"Things have changed in the music business over the years, where people have learned, and thank God for that, to separate a man's fuckups, his personal fuckups, from his talent," Meaux explained.
It's doubtful that even Huey Meaux believes that nonsense anymore -- wherever he is tonight, bruddah.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.