COSIMO MATASSA – Born April 13, 1926, New Orleans, LA – Died September 11, 2014
He didn’t own a record label like Sam Phillips, Lew Chudd, Art Rupe or Johnny Vincent. He wasn’t even a
recording producer, but the failure to elect Cosimo Matassa to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame may be the single biggest
omission since the hall’s first induction ceremonies two decades ago. Since the genre was born in his New Orleans studio in 1947, and nurtured there until it gained its footing in Shreveport and Memphis and then spread across the land like so much kudzu, it would seem only logical to recognize him as the Godfather of Rock & Roll. It’s not that he hasn’t had his supporters; the Louisiana Music Commission once published 101 reasons why Matassa should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on its web page. The only problem is, the Music Commission was abolished in 2006, and although reinstated in 2008, has not been proactive in promoting Matassa since. In 2012, through the efforts of many individuals and organizations including The Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame (having inducted Cosimo in our second induction class in 2007), Cosimo was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. Cosimo’s induction reflected, among other things his pioneering of Rock and Roll, providing the initial recordings of Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name just a very few.
Fortunately The Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame has taken on the task to promote some of the best music in the history of jazz, rock & roll, blues, Cajun, zydeco, swamp pop or R&B, or to tell the world about the 450 gold records, 600 Top Ten and 1150 Top 100 songs with direct ties to Louisiana.. There is no commission to trumpet the achievements of the Louisiana Hayride, the Louisiana State University and Loyola University music programs or hundreds of Louisiana musicians.
In late 1999, New Orleans and Louisiana paid proper homage to the building from which so many rock & roll and R&B hits sprang in the golden era from 1947 to 1956. J&M Studio, located at 838-840 North Rampart Street, was designated as an historic landmark on December 10, 1999, the 50th anniversary of the studio’s first recording session by Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew on that date in 1949. The building is a Laundromat today but inside, the walls are lined with photographs of a veritable Who’s Who of R&B, performers who at one time or another recorded at the quaint old studio.
The Official Landmark brass plaque that adorns the exterior of the building reads:
First Recording Studio Of Cosimo Matassa
Built Circa 1835 With Galleries Likely Added In The 1850’s
In 1944, J&M Amusements Acquired The Building, And Cosimo Matassa
Soon Opened J&M Recording Studio.
Oscar “Papa” Celestin, Danny Barker, and the Dukes Of Dixieland
recorded jazz here.
The “New Orleans Sound” developed from pioneering rhythm &
blues and rock & roll recordings made here between 1947 and 1956 by
Paul Gayten, Annie Laurie, Roy Brown, Professor Longhair, Dave
Bartholomew, Fats Domino, Guitar Slim, Shirley & Lee, Lloyd Price,
Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ray Charles and others.
“I never intended on being in the recording business,” he said as he settled into a chair in his cluttered office above Matassa’s Market. The crowded family grocery store is hidden away from the tourist traffic in the New Orleans French Quarter at the corner of Dauphine and St. Phillip streets. Cosimo Matassa was born in New Orleans on April 13, 1926 and pursued chemistry as a major at Tulane University. In late 1943, World War II was raging and he had already completed five semesters when he told his father he wanted to drop out of school. Certain that he would be drafted as soon as he turned eighteen in April of the approaching year, he said he wanted to kick back a few months.
“Well, I wasn’t drafted because of some physical problems,” he said, “and I found out I wasn’t cut out to be a chemist.
My father was old-school Italian and he told me in no uncertain terms it was either go back to school or go to work, so
I went to work.” He got a job with J&M Services, which was a juke box business and in a few years, found the demand for used records from the juke boxes was such that he bought the business. “When the war ended, I opened a combination appliance and record store at the corner of Rampart and Dauphine,” he said, lacing his fingers together behind his head, his aded blue sweatshirt straining to keep his ample stomach covered as he leaned back in his chair. “There was no store in New Orleans that sold records. When I realized the demand for records was more than for appliances, I soon dropped the appliances and concentrated on records.”
Matassa eventually converted a small room in the back of the record store to a recording studio so that people could come in and make a record for their personal use. “That was in 1945,” he said. “The recording studio soon became a commercial enterprise because of the interest it generated.” Matassa had only a direct-to-disc recording system in those days, prehistoric by today’s high-tech standards. “There were no tape recorders, so if a singer or musician messed up, we had to discard the entire acetate disc and start over,” he said. The same rule applied to the length of the songs. The direct-to-disc system dictated that performers complete their songs within a specified time because the disc would cut off automatically, usually in less than three minutes. “We kept that system for several years before I was able to purchase a tape recorder,” he said.
“Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight (recorded in 1947) was a direct-to-disc recording,” said Matassa. There was also
Guitar Slim’s The Things That I Used to Do. “Ray Charles not only played piano on that song, but he directed it, too. In those days, because of direct-to-disc recording, we had to go all the way through, mistakes and all, and at the end, he (Ray) would address each of the musicians and tell them where they messed up and he was never wrong. He also played piano for Fats Domino and he did two half-sessions for Atlantic Records in my studio,” Matassa said.
Unlike most black artists of that day, Ray Charles did not stay at the Dew Drop Inn, choosing instead to stay at the Foster Hotel just up the street. “The movie Ray was an excellent movie,” Matassa said, “but it short-changed New Orleans.” There’s a brief exterior shot of the Saenger Theater and the scene where he first sings I Can’t Stop Loving You is inside the Saenger, but that’s it. “Ray based himself out of New Orleans for three years early in his career. He spent three years of his life in New Orleans but it’s never once mentioned in the movie,” he said.
World War II liberated the music business when it scattered recording personnel all over the U.S. which meant independent studios, pressing plants, and distributors started popping up in places they had never been before. It seemed for a while that nearly every town of any size and even some small towns (Crowley, Ville Platte, and Lake Charles, to name three) had a recording studio. That enabled, even encouraged, the development of local talent that otherwise would never have been able to obtain the exposure necessary to be successful. The trifecta of good local talent, independent studios, and local radio stations willing to play the records cracked the heretofore impenetrable monopoly previously enjoyed by the major recording companies.
Indeed, between 1955 and 1959, the U.S. market share of the four major record companies (the elite three of RCA, Columbia, and Decca were joined by Capitol by that time) had plummeted from 78 percent to 44 percent. By 2005, the new” big four (EMI-Capitol, Warner, SonyBMG, and Universal) had regained a 70 percent market share.
Matassa said demographics worked against many black artists in the early days of rock and R&B but his studio opened doors previously shut to New Orleans artists. “We didn’t intentionally seek out black artists in those days,” he said. “You have to understand that I grew up in the French Quarter where blacks and whites lived side by side. We didn’t have black neighbors or white neighbors; they were just neighbors. We were integrated long before it became a social issue.” His father moved to New Orleans and purchased a corner grocery store in 1924. Cosimo grew up in the store, first putting soap on the bottom shelves, coming home from school to stock cans at eye level, and later placing cereal boxes on the upper reaches. The Quarter then held 15,000 residents. Outside, street vendors peddled their goods. “The place had vitality,” he says. Many residents were new immigrants and many more were black. “We lived cheek by jowl,” he says. “We were integrated – we just didn’t know it.”
Times change, however, and today Matassa is unhappy with developments in the music business. The practice of sampling another singer’s or group’s lyrics in a song is a trend that upsets Matassa. So, too, do the explicit lyrics that have found their way into music. “Go back and listen to some of the old blues songs and compare them to today’s rap,” he said. “Blues singers had implied sex in their songs. Take Big Legged Woman, for example: “You got something under there what’ll make a bulldog hug a hound.” There’s not a dirty word in that entire song, but you know exactly what the singer’s saying, what he’s implying: raw sex. Same with Big Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle and Roll. Rap music, for some reason, finds it necessary to be graphic, to interject all the four-letter words you can think of – and then some.”
The heyday of the independent studio is far behind him and he ended up losing about $200,000 before getting out of the
business. Still, he said, he’d do it again if the opportunity arose. “We had a lot of fun back then,” he said. “We were just one big family. All the artists played and sang backup for each other. On Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-In-Law, it’s Benny Spellman who is heard singing the deep part and Ernie singing the rest. Irma (Thomas) sang backup on a lot of the songs. So did many of the others. Most people think Fats Domino played his own piano but he didn’t always. A lot of the time when the house band was available, he’d be on tour so we just had him come in and do his vocals and then the band would lay down the instrumental part later. Huey ‘Piano’ Smith did the piano work on many of Fats’s records. He also did the piano intro on Smiley Lewis’s I Hear You Knockin’. “We were always looking for that ‘sweet spot’ in the studio where it would all come together,” he said. J&M charged fifteen dollars per hour for recording sessions and musicians were paid union scale of $41.25 for a four-song session.
“I’ve had a good life and I worked with some truly great and wonderful people,” he said. “I’ve known people who worked all their lives at a job they hated so they could provide for their families. I was fortunate enough to make a good living at a job I loved. I think we just matured ourselves out of business.” In a moment of candor, he revealed the fate that befell many of the independents. “One thing about the music business is that the only thing harder to get than that first hit is the second hit,” he said. “You have a lot of one-hit wonders out there. That’s not good because the independent recording studios back then were paid by the distributors but they paid us for the first hit from proceeds derived from the second hit and they’d pay us for the second hit from revenues generated by the third hit, and so on. In my case, I got over-extended at the end because I went too long between hits.”
When Matassa left the recording business in the 1980s, he returned to the family market in the French Quarter. One of the last hits he recorded was Aaron Neville’s Tell It Like It Is in 1966. In February 2004, Matassa participated in a special presentation held at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to honor the role of New Orleans in the history of the genre. The time to recognize Matassa’s role by inducting him into the hall is long overdue. Cosimo Matassa, along with several gifted musicians and a handful of progressive deejays, gave New Orleans rhythm & blues an outlet to a world of eager white listeners. It seems likely now that if he’s ever elected, it will be posthumously, and that’s a damned shame.
On October 27, 2007 at “Louisiana’s Greatest Hits – LIVE! -Volume 1” in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Cosimo Matassa was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame. Present and performing were several artists and fellow inductees who recorded over the years for Cos.
Bio by Mike Shepherd and Tom Aswell (Author of “Louisiana Rocks – The True Genesis Of Rock And Roll”)