Cosimo Matassa’s French Quarter recording studios were hit factories in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. A giant in the city’s music scene, Matassa died Thursday at 88.
Following a stroke in recent years, Matassa’s health declined in the past few months, his family told WWL-TV.
Local and national stars recorded at Matassa’s two French Quarter studios. The list includes Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Little Richard, Professor Longhair, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Frankie Ford, Ray Charles, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Aaron Neville, Huey “Piano” Smith, Jimmy Clanton, Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis and many more.
The city’s great session players, too, were regulars at Cosimo’s, as the studios were commonly called, including drummers Earl Palmer and Charles “Hungry” Williams and saxophonists Lee Allen and Alvin “Red” Tyler.”
Matassa, a studio owner and audio engineer, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. His other honors include a Grammy Hall of Fame certificate, an honorary doctorate of music from Loyola University and Offbeat magazine’s first lifetime achievement award for music business.
Matassa’s original facility, J&M Recording Studio on North Rampart Street, received a historic designation on Dec. 10, 1999, the 50th anniversary of Domino’s recording session for “The Fat Man.”
“It’s an ocean out there, and rivers lead to the ocean, and our river to the ocean is Cosimo Matassa,” Toussaint said during Matassa’s 2000 induction into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame.
Before his ill health, the energetic Matassa helped operate the same French Quarter grocery store that his parents ran when he was born. New Orleans music fans from throughout the world dropped by to say hello.
In Matassa’s opinion, Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” recorded at Matassa’s studio in 1947, was the first rock ’n’ roll record.
“It was the first one that had a wider appeal than just a straight R&B record,” Matassa told The Advocate in 2001. “It was more like a shouting, big-band blues kind of thing than what we now think of as R&B or rock ’n’ roll, but it had all of the elements.”
Following “The Fat Man,” Domino’s first hit, the singer-pianist remained an important presence at Matassa’s studios for more than a decade. Domino recorded 20 Top 40 singles from 1955 to 1961.
“He was the first major crossover artist,” Matassa said. “White people bought his records all across the country. So he made a difference, because he literally opened doors for other people.”
Matassa had especially fond memories of Domino and Little Richard, the flamboyant singer from Macon, Georgia. Like Domino, Little Richard recorded his first hit, the explosive “Tutti Frutti,” at Matassa’s J&M Studio.
Of Domino and Little Richard, Matassa said, “they just did so well, and they did it over and over and over again. That’s the difference between the one-hit wonders. A guy comes along, he’s OK, he’s not a super artist, but he gets a great song and a great arrangement and he gives it a good performance and he has a hit. But then making that second hit, it’s almost impossible for that combination to come up again.”
In the 1930s, the Matassa family operated two bars and a grocery store. His father also was in the jukebox business. In 1945, the family opened the J&M Music Shop at Rampart and Dumaine. The shop soon housed the tiny J&M Recording Studio.
“The control room was about the size of two telephone booths,” Matassa said.
The studio wasn’t even his idea, Matassa said. His business partner, Joe Mancuso, thought it would draw people who wished to make recordings for their personal use.
“But it fell to me to run it,” Matassa said. “I was a little more technically oriented. I didn’t know anything about recording, literally, but I learned — on-the-job training.
“The first things were people’s daughters learning to play the piano, or they wanted to sing and that kind of thing,” Matassa said. “It gradually got into more of the commercial things until, ultimately, that was practically all I was doing.”
The studio moved to a larger space on Gov. Nicholls Street in the mid-’50s. It was renamed Cosimo Recording Studio.
The mid- to late ’50s were a boom time at Cosimo’s.
“Yeah, sometimes two days running,” he said. “Things would go over. We weren’t prepared in those days like today, where stuff is arranged and rehearsed separately. The singer maybe never heard of the songs he was gonna do. So, one by one, you take the songs, teach it to the singer, teach it to the piano player, and the band would work it out. Head arrangements was the word we used. We made head arrangements as we went along.”
Matassa sought to make recordings that were faithful to performers’ sound on the bandstand.
“A lot of engineers today, I notice, think they’re producers,” he said. “I think the real job is to preserve the performance of the artist.”
Matassa also introduced out-of-town independent label executives to the thriving New Orleans music scene.
“I’d just go to clubs with them and tell about this guy or that guy,” he said. “Or they’d find somebody talking to band members, hanging in the bar or lounge.”
It was great to receive awards and honors, Matassa said in 2000, “but it’s the people that count, and I love them.”
Nearly every performer who entered his studio put heart and soul into the work, Matassa said.
“A lot of them weren’t really making any money in the career sense of it, but it was what they wanted and loved to do and they just did well. Usually, if you love something, you do it well, and they did.”