Born 13 April 1926, New Orleans, Louisiana
To say that Cosimo Matassa is one of the chief figures reponsible for developing the New Orleans rhythm and blues and rock n roll sound of the 1950s and 1960s is an understatement. Virtually every R&B record made in New Orleans between the late Forties and the early Seventies was engineered by Matassa and recorded in one of his four studios.
An only child, Cosimo studied chemistry at Tulane University before dropping out to work for his father's jukebox company and later the family appliance shop at Rampart and Dumaine. In 1945, he installed studio gear in the back of the shop for personal amateur recordings. He also started selling used jukebox records as a sideline. Soon the records were outselling the electrical appliances, and Cosimo was quick to convert the shop into a record store (the J&M Music Shop), which sold new releases as well. The shop prospered until 1946, when Matassa noticed that there were no outlets for recording music in New Orleans. So he bought a Duo-Press disc cutter and set it up in one of the back rooms and launched J&M Recording Studios. With no home grown labels in New Orleans, Cosimo depended on outside companies to come into town to exploit the wealth of music talent to be found in N.O. The first to do so (in 1947) was Dave Braun's DeLuxe label from Linden, NJ. They brought in Dave Bartholomew, Paul Gayten and Annie Laurie. Cosimo charged them $ 15 an hour plus the cost of materials. DeLuxe's initial session proved to be fruitful, producing a hit with Paul Gayten's "True" (# 5 R&B) and the company returned in late 1947 to stockpile material in advance of the impending musician's union strike (the Petrillo Recording Ban of 1948). Amongst the artists recorded were Smiley Lewis, Fats Pichon, Al Russell, Pleasant Joseph and Papa Celestin and, most important, DeLuxe recorded national hits by Annie Laurie ("Since I Fell For You"), Roy Brown ("Good Rockin' Tonight") and Dave Bartholomew ("Country Boy"). The latter would develop into the most important figure to enter the J&M Studio. An experienced musician, Bartholomew had assembled a classic band (Red Tyler and Clarence Hall on tenor sax, Ernest McLean on guitar, Salvador Doucette on piano, Earl Palmer on drums and a few others), which would develop into the house band at Cosimo's. Bartholomew brought Fats Domino to J&M in December 1949, where he cut "The Fat Man", one of the first New Orleans R&B classics, and the start of Domino's amazing career. Many people refer to Cosimo's studio band as the Fats Domino band, but the studio musicians were far too busy to go on the road with Fats. The session people on Fats's records were usually a mix of Domino's road band and Cosimo's studio band. Domino and Bartholomew recorded for Imperial, out of Hollywood, but this was not the only independent label that had discovered J&M. As the Fifties progressed, Cosimo became busier and busier, as labels like Specialty, Aladdin, Atlantic, Savoy and Chess all came from different parts of the country in search of Matassa's expertise. Cosimo told Jeff Hannusch "I practically lived in that place. We'd start at nine o'clock in the morning, and sometimes wouldn't get out until midnight. We never charged overtime, and that would go on for seven days a week."
At first, Matassa cut directly to disc (acetate). In 1949, the first tape machines became commercially available and Cosimo bought one of the first in the South, an Ampex 300 model. Considering the technically primitive conditions under which he was forced to work, it is amazing how full and driving the sound is on the early recordings that came out of his studio, particularly the early Imperial releases by Fats Domino, Archibald, Jewel King and Tommy Ridgley. Matassa saw himself strictly as an engineer, not as a producer. He was very skilled at microphone placing and capturing the sound of New Orleans R&B with a naturalistic feel. In 1955, Cosimo moved the studio to 523 Governor Nicholls Street, where he didn't stay long because he had the chance to buy a bigger building next door, at 525. That's where he put the first really big studio, now renamed Cosimo Recording Studio instead of J&M. Little Richard recorded his best work at Cosimo's, between September 1955 and October 1956, like "Tutti Frutti", "Long Tall Sally", "Ready Teddy", "Lucille" and "Good Golly Miss Molly".
In 1957, Matassa was instrumental in discovering the teen idol Jimmy Clanton. Cosimo got him signed to Ace Records (biggest hit : "Just A Dream", # 4 pop, 1958) and acted as his manager. The next year saw Matassa founding the Rex label, which became a subsidiary of Ace. It was strictly a local label and didn't last long. In the 1960s he formed Dover Records, intended to band all of the tiny labels together in a cooperative venture that would help the production and distribution of New Orleans records.
During that decade the flow of New Orleans R&B continued, although the sound had changed, with Allen Toussaint as the main innovator. The sale of Imperial in 1963 (to Liberty Records) and the bankruptcy of several independents that had previously used his facilities meant a blow to Matassa's business. Coupled with the advent of the Beatles and the Motown sound, the New Orleans R&B record industry was verging on disaster. Ironically, the big hit that Dover so eagerly sought, proved to be Cosimo's undoing. Aaron Neville's "Tell It Like It Is" (# 2 pop in 1967) was just too big for Matassa to handle and the New Orleans banks were not about to help out. With distributors not paying up and the banks turning down loans, the cash was spread too thin, and eventually the IRS seized Cosimo's studio and all its contents. Far from being embittered, Matassa helped Allen Toussaint set up the Sea-Saint Studio, continued engineering sessions and set up Jefferson Jazz with Marshall Sehorn in the 1980s. He retired from the music business in the late Eighties to manage the family's food store Matassa's Market in the French Quarter. In December 1999, J&M Recording Studio was designated as a historic landmark. In October 2007, Matassa was honoured for his contributions to Louisiana music with induction into the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame.
- Acknowledgements : Jeff Hannusch, John Broven, Adam Komorowski.
- Recommended listening:
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