J&M Studio: House of Rock

A young Mac Rebennack, still in short trousers, was tagging along with his father who was visiting his friend, studio owner and engineer Cosimo Matassa in his tiny back room recording studio at the edge of the French Quarter. “I can tell you every musician [that] was there” recalls Rebennack—now Dr. John—over 50 years from that day. “I remember Dave Bartholomew was producing a session. It was Herbert Hardesty and Red Tyler, Frankie Fields, Earl Palmer and Elwood Franks. Buddy Charles was playing guitar. I was just a little kid, never seen a recording studio before. I remember right at the end of the song, Dave Bartholomew leaned over and played the last note with the two saxes and made a big fat ending chord. Not that I knew what that was then. Now I know!”

Today that same back room on the corner of Rampart and Dumaine is filled with the rumble of tumble dryers at the back of the Clothes Spin. A historical marker outside and an unnoticed white logo that people walk over at the entrance are the only hints at its past life. From 1945 to 1956, it was a tiny studio tucked away behind a record and appliance store, and the session that Dr. John so vividly remembers could have been any one of hundreds that came out of it. J&M Studio rolled out major chart hits by the black artists that powered the post-war R&B craze and kept the American youth dancing, and it did so two decades before Motown made the claim and adopted the moniker “Hitsville USA.” In fact, in February 1954, four of the top ten hits in the Billboard charts came from the corner of Rampart and Dumaine.

This tiny room, barely big enough to squeeze in a grand piano and a few microphones was pioneering in many ways. It unleashed a new drum style—the backbeat—that has since become the bedrock of rock ’n’ roll drumming. It also spawned the first house band in history. At least 20 years before Stax Records had Booker T and the MGs, Muscle Shoals had the Swampers and Motown had the Funk Brothers, J&M had a razor-sharp house band nicknamed “The Clique.” Trumpet player, band leader and producer Dave Bartholomew often led this crew that could—and did—back any musician that walked past the refrigerators and waffle irons in the household appliance store to record in the little back room.

Less than two years after it opened, J&M hit big with gospel shouter Roy Brown’s hit “Good Rocking Tonight.” A black man in the segregated South of the late 1940s singing a party song about getting it on with all the fire and brimstone of his gospel upbringing was like an explosion. It angered parents, scandalized the church, took over the airwaves and created a generation gap long before Elvis got the credit for it. It was a starting pistol for a new era. Teenagers started dancing and staking their claim in the world to this new form of gritty, urban blues with a heavy rhythm. Along with Wynonie Harris’ cash-in version the next year, the song sold in the millions and spread the word “rock” years before Alan Freed and Bill Haley would ever use it

Two years after that, Dave Bartholomew brought in Fats Domino for “The Fat Man.” The song had none of the polish of what preceded it. It was stripped down and propelled by a driving beat and Domino’s thumping, rolling piano style. What’s more, it was awash with distortion. “The Fat Man” started a long relationship between Domino and J&M.

“Fats was laid back,” remembers studio owner and engineer Cosimo Matassa. “He didn’t feel the urgency that everyone else did, but Dave Bartholomew helped him keep his focus and remember what the business at hand was—to make a record.” In the early days, Domino would be given a new song and sit and tinker with it in the studio. “It could go on and on,” continues Matassa. “It was how he absorbed a song. He’d noodle at the piano and noodle and noodle. Somewhere along the way, it was almost like a transformation. You could feel it. He suddenly got it and he’d make it his own and from then on it was Fats’ version of whatever that was.”

Recording wasn’t the process it has become. “There was no mixing desk,” remembers Matassa. Now 83, he can occasionally be found balancing the books above the French Quarter grocery that carries the family name. “[It was] just three mics directly into the driver amplifiers that recorded the disks,” he says. “What you did was what you had. So I’d have to do a group with three mics and some juggling. It forced me to learn how to do it well.”

It didn’t take him long, remembers saxophone player Herbert Hardesty. Best known as Fats Domino’s main saxophone player, he was a regular “Clique” member when not on the road with Domino. Hardesty was one of the many Crescent City musicians ended up going west to get in on the lucrative Los Angeles session scene. He now lives in Las Vegas and is still a working musician. His living room has pictures of some of his previous employers such as Tony Bennett and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as unexpected musical friends Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen. “[Cosimo] was able to get things to sound the way they were supposed to sound. Usually in a split few minutes he was able to get things organized.”

Guitarist Ernest McLean has come to appreciate Matassa’s talents. “Nowadays you have so many tracks that you can mix it after the session was over,” he says. “Cosimo could do all that with three or four mics. He had to get that mix while we were recording.”

McLean joined Dave Bartholomew’s band in 1948 and became a Clique mainstay guitar player. Like Hardesty, McLean also moved west and now lives in Long Beach, California where he is still a jobbing musician playing solo jazz guitar at Disneyland. He is also recording a series of CDs—for the first time under his own name—which will include a disc of jazz arrangements of Fats Domino songs.

Recording at J&M was blue collar work, though it paid better than the 75 cents minimum wage of the time. It was music by the yard by human jukeboxes. “We had three books,” McLean says of his days with Dave Bartholomew’s band. “A rhythm and blues book, a jazz book for big band arrangements and a dance book. We could play any engagement.” Today with hindsight, there’s a general understanding on music’s cultural context, but back then a gig was a gig. “I enjoyed going to the studio”, drummer Earl Palmer told Tony Scherman in his memoir Backbeat. “I knew I’d make more money in six hours than a week of gigs.”

“We’d make the record, get the check, and that’s it,” agrees Hardesty. Making records was literally a waged day job given the rules of Local 496 musicians union that forbade recording at night. “For a three hour session, 41 [dollars] and a quarter,” recalls McLean. “Sometimes I would put down different notes for the horns to play and Dave Bartholomew would give me $82.50. A leader’s fee.” Each three hour session would have to produce four songs. “We went over it while we were in the studio, but the music was something we could all feel,” says McLean. “So it was a routine thing. You play so many choruses of singing then the horns solo and then go back to the singer and take it out with a riff and that’s it. Then all we had to do was find a decent ending.”

There is irony in the fact that the musicians who laid the foundations for rock ’n’ roll were actually seasoned jazz hounds. They were happiest when they were jamming after hours at the Dew Drop Inn, greasing their chops playing challenging jazz and bebop. “It was just twelve bar blues,” laughs McLean of the hits coming out of J&M. “You don’t learn that stuff; you just play it! You got three people that want to listen to a million chords and a million people that want to listen to a three chords!”

The biggest challenge was timing. “You couldn’t do anything over three minutes because we were recording on disc,” says McLean. “If you went over, then it would cut off. [We had to] make sure you get the tempo right so [the acetate master] wouldn’t run out before the arrangement’s over. Sometimes we’d run through it a couple of times and time it. If two choruses were too much or you wanted a slow tempo, you had to cut something out. Instead of doing three choruses, you’d have to do two, or two and a half. Two choruses and then you would go back to the middle of the song and take it out from there.”

“Cosimo was a very patient engineer,” says Hardesty. “He never got frustrated. He was cool throughout the whole session.” That’s an attribute that many musicians attribute to Matassa, and is much part of an engineer or producer’s talent as much as getting the balance right.

Dr. John became a session musician and producer at J&M’s later location at Gov. Nicholls, and he speaks of Matassa as someone whose demeanor instantly made musicians feel at ease and had a knack for knowing what they needed. When Professor Longhair came in to record, Matassa had to adjust the piano. “He was used to playing an upright, which meant that he used to kick the bottom of the piano with a side-to-side movement of his right foot, almost like playing rhythm,” says Matassa. “We had a grand piano, so we got a board and some clamps and clamped the board across the front two legs of the piano so he would have something to kick.”

J&M’s reputation grew. A 16-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis saved some money and traveled to J&M from Ferriday, Louisiana to make his first ever recording three years before he would record at Sun Records. Ray Charles recorded there as well as producing Guitar Slim’s hit “The Things That I Used to Do.”

“You remember not so much the sessions but the characteristics of the people,” says Matassa. “To me the thing with Ray was that he walked around the studio like a sighted person. Once he felt [where] the microphone was, he remembered that and would walk around like he could actually see it. A lot of guys [during rehearsals would] go along and [if] one of the guys makes a clinker, they stop to discus it. Ray didn’t. He would go all the way to the end, but he would remember every single thing anybody did wrong. Just a phenomenal memory.”

Cosimo Matassa had upgraded his equipment in the little back room and replaced disc with tape, though four-track technology was still a long way off. The record industry was controlled by the jukebox operators who wanted singles short—to ensure a steady stream of coins being fed into their boxes—and loud. Matassa filled out the audio spectrum to make records seem louder. “If you had a bass and a guitar line and a gap in the middle, you needed to get an instrument playing in there,” he says. “It didn’t change the song but it added to the overall volume.” Once he upgraded and bought an early mixer board, he could address his true love.

“I could use two banks of four microphone inputs,” Matassa remembers, “and took one bank of mics and used it as a rhythm mix because it was real important to get the rhythm right.” The rhythm heavy sound that came out of J&M is referred to as the Cosimo Sound, a tag that Matassa shrugs off. “People give me too much credit,” he says, laughing. “I was rhythm-centric. What I was doing was being real careful to capture what local guys were doing. I didn’t invent it, and I’m no musician so I didn’t play it. They played it and my job was to put it down on to recording.”

Georgia piano pounder Little Richard recorded his most famous hits at J&M. Bumps Blackwell was producing a session as Little Richard cut Eddie Bo’s “Slipping and Sliding” when 17-year-old Allen Toussaint set foot in the studio for the first time. With bandmate Snooks Eaglin, he was auditioning a song for Dave Bartholomew.

“Richard came flying through there and it was just like Richard was,” remembers Toussaint today. “When the door opened and Richard came in, it seemed like the lights got brighter. He found magic here. He knew where the magic was and he’d come and get it.” Like Dr. John, Toussaint would become a session musician himself at J&M’s later locations and hone his production skills there. “Cosimo built the institution where we [musicians] all had to go through. It was our university.”

It was Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” session that brought the revolutionary backbeat to the world. “Little Richard didn’t want me on the session,” recalls McLean who played guitar with Edgar Blanchard. “I was a member of Dave Bartholomew’s band and he was afraid that some of his ideas would go to Dave. As soon as I walked in the studio and somebody told him I was Ernest McLean, he said, ‘Oh alright, you can be on the session.’” In an attempt to keep up with Richard’s fast, jabbing right hand piano trills, drummer Earl Palmer slid the beat away from the one and three and onto the off beat two and four—a rhythm rarely used outside of gospel music. It was the first time the rock-solid metronome timing was committed to record; before then, swinging rhythms had been the norm. Palmer’s straight-eight backbeat changed drumming the way the electric guitar changed guitar playing. Though, Palmer had in essence, invented the most played drum style in music, he had little enthusiasm for it.

“We didn’t realize how popular that stuff was getting”. He tells Tony Scherman in Backbeat when discussing rock ’n’ roll. “What was rock ’n’ roll to me? I lived in a jazz world”. Palmer would take more delight in tackling the challenging charts and time signatures that were waiting for him when he recorded soundtracks for cartoons as an L.A. session drummer. He may not be alone in his sentiment. Ask Ernest McLean, who his favorite musician was, and he will not mention any blues guitar player but John Coltrane. Though proud of the work he did at J&M, he gets as much enjoyment in immersing himself playing jazz at Disney World.

“Tutti Frutti” was one of the last hits that came out of the little room. J&M moved away from Rampart and Dumaine shortly after the session. In its other locations, it continued to grow, produce hits and harvest the hotbed of producers and musicians that rotated into the fold as members of the original Clique migrated to Los Angeles.

In 1974, J&M hit financial problems and turned its microphones off for good. Today, Matassa has good memories of the times. “If somebody wanted to know what I’d want on my tombstone, it would be ‘No regrets.’ I had a wonderful life. I look back on it, and I had an awful lot of fun doing what other people would call their job. It was a wonderful way to make a living. It had its ups and downs but it was just great.”

Meanwhile, back at the Clothes Spin, washers wash, dryers dry, the television is tuned to local news station as another pair of feet shuffles over the logo inlaid at the floor of the entrance. It says simply “J&M Music Shop.”