Crazy Rhythms 

Reissue series highlights producer Meaux's sprawling, brilliant output

Reissue series highlights producer Meaux's sprawling, brilliant output

Houston has never been an independent recording center on a par with Memphis, Chicago, or Cincinnati, respective homes to the fabled Sun, Chess, and King labels. But during the 1960s, the “Baghdad on the Bayou” gave those towns a run for their money. The booming port city attracted laborers from Louisiana to the east and from all over the Southwest. This influx meant more than just an infusion of strong backs into the local workforce; these transplants brought with them the blues, R&B, Cajun, zydeco, honky-tonk, and Border music they played and danced to back home. It wasn’t long before Houston’s rough-and-tumble clubs became hothouses for musical cross-pollination, spawning the careers of everyone from Tex-Mex bar-band the Sir Douglas Quintet to such country stars as Freddy Fender and Ronnie Milsap.

At the center of it all was Huey P. Meaux, a barber, deejay, and huckster from Kaplan, La., with a keen ear for a hit and an even sharper eye for ways to turn a quick buck. Besides the acts mentioned above, Meaux, known to many as the “Crazy Cajun,” also produced the records of Moe Bandy, Barbara Lynn, Mickey Gilley, Delbert McClinton, Clifton Chenier, Johnny Copeland, B.J. Thomas, Roy Head, and dozens of other then-emerging stars. He broke scores of singles to local, regional, and national audiences during the ’60s and ’70s. As Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski put it, Meaux was “one of the last links to the time when records were sold out of the trunks of cars and music was popular because it sounded good, not because it fit a marketing niche.”

Much of the producer’s catalog—some released on his Crazy Cajun imprint and its subsidiaries, the rest leased to bigger labels—has been in shambles for years. Most of it has long been out of print, and a lot of vintage material has never been released—that is, until now. Under the direction of Nashville’s John Lomax III, a music journalist and former manager of Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, UK-based Demon Records has been systematically issuing the contents of Meaux’s vaults. Each set contains a mix of well-known tracks and rarities—loose, greasy, sexy-sounding records that epitomize the freewheeling Gulf Coast music scene of the ’60s and ’70s. Even a singer like Ronnie Milsap, later known for his slick pop-country hits, made raw, gritty records for Meaux. His ’60s cover of Ray Charles’ “Hello Mary Ann,” included on Ronnie Milsap, The Crazy Cajun Recordings, gives a lie to the potshot John Hiatt took at him on “Memphis in the Meantime.” Hell, Hiatt hasn’t cut anything nearly as gutbucket in his entire career.

Meaux had his first nationwide smash in 1962 with “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” (No. 8 pop, No. 1 R&B), a steamy soul sender by 20-year-old Barbara Lynn, a left-handed guitar whiz from Beaumont, Texas. John Lomax III was 18 and living in Houston then. He’d grown up around the folk music that his grandfather (John A. Lomax) and uncle (Alan Lomax) had spent their lives preserving—fielding recordings by everyone from Lead Belly to Muddy Waters to anonymous cotton pickers. Foremost on the young Lomax’s mind, though, was sneaking into the city’s clamorous juke joints. “The whole swamp pop thing was happening down there,” he explains. “Roy Head and the Traits. B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs. These were fucking killer white-soul R&B rock show bands. Roy Head did more shit onstage than Michael Jackson. Good God, that guy was a whirling dervish.”

The recording industry was just as wide open as Houston’s thriving club scene was in those days. Instead of being in the grip of a handful of megacorporations located in New York, Nashville, and L.A., the music business was decentralized, spread out over numerous local and regional markets. “Radio was all mom-and-pops back then,” Lomax says. “You could just show up at a station with a record. If the guy liked it, he’d play it. You didn’t make an appointment or anything. You just turned up with a trunk full of records. Huey was right in the middle of all that. He became a magnet for any artist who didn’t have a label—and in the early ’60s that was most artists.”

One of those fledgling singers was Doug Sahm, a San Antonio native who had been kicking around the music business since he was 14. In 1964, Meaux, impressed by the success of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and other British Invasion bands, urged Sahm and his mates to grow their hair long, buy matching duds, and write an up-tempo two-step. Meaux christened the five-piece the Sir Douglas Quintet and marketed them as if they were from England. “It worked,” explains Lomax. “They had Hispanic players in the band, but people didn’t seem to notice or care.” The Vox-driven number Sahm tossed off at Meaux’s request, “She’s About a Mover,” reached the pop Top 20 the following year, spurring a rash of organ-drenched hits by groups like Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs and Question Mark & the Mysterians.

Meaux’s work with Sahm typified his producing style, a laissez-faire approach that New Orleans studio maven Cosimo Matassa likened to that of a cheerleader. “Huey was a great guy for egging people on, for his enthusiasm, but he didn’t really offer a lot of musical input,” echoes Lomax. “He had an ear, but that was it. He had no musical training. He couldn’t say to somebody, ‘No, don’t play in that key, do it in B-flat.’ ”

Whatever facility Meaux lacked behind the producer’s board he made up for in business acumen. And he made the most of everything, including studio backing tracks, which he often recycled. In the case of Chicano crooner Baldemar Huerta, a.k.a. Freddy Fender, the practice made Meaux a millionaire.

“Freddy was the biggest thing Huey had ever come across,” says Lomax. “ ‘Before the Next Teardrop Falls’ was No. 1 country and pop in ’75. They used that instrumental track on somebody before Freddy. And the song itself had been laying around. It had been cut at least three or four times before, but all of sudden it just clicked, and the money started rolling in.”

Fender stayed hot for several years, including three more No. 1 hits: “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” “Secret Love” (a pop No. 1 for Doris Day in 1954), and a remake of Lynn’s “You’ll Lose a Good Thing.” Fender couldn’t handle fame, though, and by 1980, the bottom dropped out and the hits quit coming.

“Freddy was doing more than his share of the drugs and alcohol, and Huey was taking more than his share of the money,” explains Lomax. “There’s something like 170 tracks of Freddy that Huey Meaux claims as copyrights—as writer, if not as publisher and writer. He was smart, ’cause back in those days it was the one-eyed man who was king in the land of the blind. Most musicians didn’t know anything about publishing. They’d sign away their rights for 10 bucks and a case of beer.”

Meaux didn’t have another big single after “My Toot Toot” hit the country Top 20 for zydeco accordionist Rockin’ Sidney in 1985. But he didn’t need one, having conned enough artists out of their songwriting royalties to build a considerable publishing empire. Meaux had also become addicted to cocaine and had been secretly filming child pornography for years. In 1996, his own kids finally blew the whistle on him.

Now 67, Meaux is currently serving time for drug possession and sex crimes in a Texas prison. His musical legacy, though, remains secure—comparable to that of the legendary Jay Miller, a fellow Louisiana native who recorded dozens of Cajun, blues, hillbilly, and R&B singers during the ’50s and ’60s.

Under Lomax’s supervision, Demon’s Crazy Cajun series—released on the label’s Edsel imprint—has already issued three samplers and 36 single-artist compilations, with 19 more in the works. Besides the acts mentioned above, Demon has released discs by Lowell Fulson, T-Bone Walker, Floyd Tillman, Dr. John, the Cate Brothers, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Tommy McClain, Oscar Perry, Joe Barry, and Fiddlin’ Frenchie Burke, among others. All come with biographical sketches written by Lomax or his son, John Nova Lomax. The series’ only drawback, besides a meager art budget, is the lack of any session information.

“We have no details about personnel, recording dates, song credits, anything,” Lomax admits. “And we’re not getting a lot of money to do these things, so we don’t have the time to go and do the research you’d do if you were doing a big huge box and a [major label like] CBS was paying you a couple of grand to do it.

“Still, it’s been a great project to work on,” says Lomax, who’s been doing A&R for Demon since 1996. “It’s sort of looking backward, pawing through the dusty archives to find and put out great stuff that, for whatever reason, the majors won’t touch. In a way, it’s sort of continuing what my family has always done, ever since my granddad started collecting and writing about music in 1910. From that point on, there’s always been some Lomax doing something in regard to finding, collecting, preserving, and presenting indigenous American roots music.

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