Cosimo Matassa Out of the Shadows


Submitted by Cashbox Canada and Sandy Graham

Cosimo Matassa, had a used-record business in New Orleans led him to sell new records, which led him to open a tiny studio that helped jump-start rock ’n’ roll.
As an engineer and proprietor of J&M Studios and Cosimo Recording Studio in New Orleans, Cosimo Matassa was crucial to the development of the New Orleans R&B, rock, and soul sound of the '50s and '60s. Little Richard and Fats Domino recorded some of their greatest hits at these studios, and major instrumentalists and producers like Dr. John and Allen Toussaint got key early experience there.

Matassa is not nearly as well-known as other pioneers of early rock production, like Sam Phillips of Sun Records, but in his way, he was almost as important. Matassa was originally in the jukebox and record retail business, starting his studio at the back of his shop in 1945. It was in the ten-by-twelve-foot J&M Studios that Fats Domino's "The Fat Man," one of the first New Orleans R&B classics and one of the first records of any sort to be retroactively classified as rock & roll, was recorded. In 1955, he moved to the larger Cosimo Recording Studio, and over the next decade, the flow of New Orleans R&B continued, with records by giants like Allen Toussaint and Lee Dorsey. He moved the studio again in 1966, although this failed by the end of the '60s. Matassa was also involved in Allen Toussaint's Sea-Saint Studios, which recorded acts like Paul McCartney, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, and LaBelle in the '70s, and was still in operation in the '90s.

27th Annual Rock Roll Hall Fame Induction of Cosimo Matassa27th Annual Rock Roll Hall Fame Induction of Cosimo MatassaMatassa was not a producer and independent label entrepreneur, like Sam Phillips, but as an engineer, he was skilled at microphone placement and capturing the sound of New Orleans R&B with a naturalistic feel. As explained by Dr. John in John Broven's Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans, "Cosimo was the type of engineer who believed in one type of scene. He would set the knobs for the session and very rarely move anything. If the piano was mixed too low at the beginning it would stay mixed too low until the end of the session, unless the producer came and changed it. But this was how record sessions were conducted for a long time. He developed what is known as the 'Cosimo Sound' which was strong drums, heavy bass, light piano, heavy guitar and light horn sound and a strong vocal lead. That was the start of what eventually became known as the New Orleans Sound, with the guitar doubling the bass line, the baritone and tenor doubling the bass line, making it a real strong sound and playing around it. It got to be known as 'Cosimo's Sound' but it was the musicians' sound because they were playing the music. But it was his little mix job which got the credit, and the record companies used to say, 'Cos has got a good sound, so we'll cut a record in New Orleans.' There were so many hits coming out of New Orleans and this was why the record companies were interested in coming there."

Although he's far from a household name, it's hard to imagine the existence of New Orleans R&B without Cosimo Matassa. As owner and engineer at J&M Studios, housed in a reworked grocery store on Rampart Street, Matassa saw the birth of R&B, rock & roll, and soul pass through his doors between 1945 and 1956, and he was responsible for the early hits of Fats Domino, Little Richard, and many others during his tenure there. This amazing four-disc, 120-track box tells that story, and it is filled with marvelous recordings that burst with energy and vitality. There's so much to be astounded at here, and not just the steady rhythmic warmth of the Fats Domino sides or the ferocious energy that crackles from each and every Little Richard track ("Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," "Rip It Up," "Ready Teddy," "The Girl Can't Help It," "Heebie Jeebies"). There's also Smiley Lewis' piano and horn rendition of "Don't Jive Me" (not to mention his original version of "I Hear You Knocking"), Lloyd Price's sturdy "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," Dave Bartholomew's wry treatise on barroom crime, "Who Drank My Beer While I Was in the Rear," and Clarence Garlow's easy rolling "New Bon Ton Roulay." There's Professor Longhair's classic "Tipitina," Sugar Boy & His Cane Cutters' timeless "Jock-A-Mo," the Hawks' bright and infectious "It's Too Late Now" and Wee Willie Wayne's whistle and percussion gem, "Travelin' Mood." Then there's Huey "Piano" Smith's delightfully clanging and steamrolling "Everybody's Whalin', "Clarence "Frogman" Henry's unique "Ain't Got No Home" and Earl King's crisply rocking "You Can Fly High." Cosimo MatassaCosimo MatassaIt all adds up to a truly impressive legacy, and again, it's impossible to imagine New Orleans R&B without the hand of Cosimo Matassa upon it. Matassa eventually had three studios in New Orleans, including Jazz City Studio on Camp Street, as well as a record pressing plant called Superior Plastic, and the record label he started in the late '50s, Rex Records. Later still he helped set up Sea-Saint Studio.

Mr. Metassa was given a lifetime achievement award at the 2007 Grammys and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 for the vaunted output of his J & M Recording Studio. (The initials were those of both his father, John, and his father’s business partner, Joe Mancuso.) The hall designated the original studio, the first of four ever-bigger iterations, a “rock and roll landmark” in 2010.

Matassa retired from the music business in the 1980s to manage the family's food store Matassa's Market in the French Quarter.

The fact is the songs that Cosimi Matassa recorded and engineered over 50 years ago were all at the top of the Cashbox Charts and we thought it fitting that his name came out of the shadows for all to read about here.

Cosimo Matassa died on September 11, 2014 at the age of 88 in the place he loved best, New Orleans. We know and love the songs. Most of us just didn't know his name. Hopefully, this story will help a little to bring this trailblazer in music out of the shadows and into the spotlight where he belongs.