It should be no surprise that Cosimo Matassa is the recipient of OffBeat’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award given to a member of the New Orleans music business community. Although he’s not a musician, Matassa has been a crucial figure in the development of New Orleans rhythm and blues, Dixieland, rock and roll, soul, and blues. For a quarter century, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, Matassa engineered virtually every significant recording in New Orleans at one of his three studios.
If Matassa had a secret to his success it was keeping recording simple. He’d artfully position the microphones around the musicians, set the controls at a practical level, turn on the tape machine, and let the performers play. He either caught the dynamics of a live performance or the artists did the song over until “Cos” was satisfied. Overdubbing or electronic manipulation rarely enhanced what was played in Matassa’s tiny studio. For 25 years, artists and producers returned to Matassa’s studios in search of his unique sound, and the commercial magic it produced. Although the unceasingly humble Matassa prefers to deflect praise and retreat when the accolades are distributed, he was recently honored along with Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino, when the site of his original studio at 828-830 North Rampart was declared a historical landmark by the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. The ordinarily taciturn Matassa was visibly touched by the honor and the outpouring of praise directed his way. “I’m sort of lost here for words,” said Matassa at the time. OffBeat recently caught up with the very active 73 year-old recently in the office of his family’s grocery on Dauphine Street, not far from where he grew up.
Now that the smoke has cleared after the ceremony at the J&M building how do you reflect on the honor?
Well about like I thought of it that day [December 10, 1999, the 50th anniversary of Fat Domino’s recording of the “Fatman”]. Now that they’ve honored that location there are about 200 more they should do the same for.
Any in particular?
I don’t have a short list, but certainly a place like the Dew Drop Inn. Also any place where somebody who was a contributor to New Orleans music, and they don’t have to be nationally famous, did something. Where they were born, died, buried, or where they played at should be indicated. Unfortunately, 99 percent of those place are gone. The best thing you can do now is put something on the ground that says, “On this site there was…” Unfortunately, the city tore down a lot of historic buildings in Treme and they just let them demolish two of the last buildings that were in Storyville.
Did you get a chance to talk much to Dave and Fats at the ceremony?
Oh yeah. They both felt the way I do. They’re grateful somebody finally did something, but they wonder why it took so long.
When was the last time you chatted with Fats?
Gee, it had been about three years since we had any kind of conversation. I went to see him at the Jazz Fest last year but we just said “Hi.” Dave and I talk to all the time. I consider him one of my best friends.
How did you originally get interested in the building at 838 N. Rampart which became the J&M Music building?
It was a natural business progression. During World War II, our jukebox business was next door. When the war ended there was this pent-up demand to buy appliances so we thought if we had a building on the corner and fixed it up, we could open a successful record and appliance store. I think we paid $25,000 or $30,000 for it.
How did you get in the jukebox business?
Through my father John Matassa. My father had jukeboxes back when it wasn’t easy for ordinary people to own them. Jukeboxes were controlled by gangsters and people with political connections. My father owned a barroom and he had a jukebox in it that was owned by one of the big operators in town. He had it taken out though and bought his own jukebox. The day after he put his in, a police officer came in and said, “You really ought to put that other jukebox back in. (The operator) is a nice guy and he’ll take care of you.” My father said, “No, I make more money this way.” The next day two policeman came and said that they had a complaint about the noise from the jukebox. My father said, “Okay, I’ll turn it down.” He figured this was just a ploy to aggravate him. The next day, though, the police came back again and seized the jukebox on the basis that they were going to file charges against my father and the jukebox was evidence. So my father went to the ward leader on Burgundy Street and told him what happened. He (the ward leader) got the police to bring the jukebox back but they threw it out of the back of the truck and smashed it. Before they left, the police told him to make sure that he didn’t leave that trash on the sidewalk.
Even though my father lost that battle, he wasn’t going to lose the war. He called the guy that had been his operator and he told him, “I’m getting another jukebox and if you break that one, I’ll just buy another one. If you break that one, I’ll get another. One of these days while you’re breaking jukeboxes, you’ll slip up. When you do, I’ll ruin you.” So the guy left my father alone.
The fellow that fixed my father’s jukebox was a mechanic named Joe Mancuso. He fixed a lot of jukeboxes including those that belonged to a guy named John Lorino. Lorino was going to retire and sell his jukebox route, so Joe came to my father and said that if he put the money up to buy Lorino’s jukeboxes, they could be partners in a new business. That was the start of J&M Amusement Services. That was just before World War II. Joe was a real go-getter so the business grew even though they suffered through the war.
Where did you come in?
I was going to Tulane during the war but I dropped out because I thought I was going to get drafted . I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to go back to school. My father said I had to get a job so I started working in his jukebox business. I went on the route servicing jukeboxes. When we changed the records, we’d give the barmaids or the waitresses a handful of red nickels, nickels painted with nail polish. They’d play the jukebox with those nickels when it got slow to get their customers to play the jukebox. Of course when the records came off the jukebox we’d sell them at our shop. The jukebox business was very competitive then. We used to have a guy that was a Pullman porter on the Sunset Limited [train] and he went out to Los Angeles every week. We’d give him money to buy new records and bring them back here. In those days they had a lot of independent labels on West Coast that didn’t have their records distributed here. I remember we had Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind” two weeks before any other jukebox operator had it. That was really good for our business.
Eventually my father offered to sell me his interest in J&M. I bought him out and I became partners with Joe, but eventually [in the early 1950s] our personalities clashed and we came to a parting. I wound up buying out his half of the business.
Was the studio was sort of an afterthought of the jukebox and appliance business?
Well, originally we weren’t thinking about making commercial recordings. The studio was aimed at just the average person coming in and making a record but it grew up to be that way.
You once told a story about how you got the first really professional microphone at the studio.
In the late 1940s I got an expensive Telefunken microphone from a synagogue. I had made friends with a doctor, Joe Edelman, and his congregation had gotten this microphone. The Jewish synagogues had this unspoken competition about who had the best cantor so this microphone was bought to help their cantor. Well, some of the people in the congregation thought it wasn’t right to use a German microphone and they got upset. So Joe got the microphone and sold it to me for a fraction of what the microphone sold new.
Didn’t you have some other interesting microphones?
Yeah, I had all of the workhorse microphones at the time but I wasn’t adverse to trying new technology. I bought an Altec omnidirectional 21-B microphone that was a capacitor mike that didn’t work like all the other capacitor mikes. It worked on the basis that when the capacitor changed, it would detune a radio frequency circuit. In other words it gave you less noise. It was a low noise high quality microphone but they never became popular.
Would you have talent auditions at the studio?
Yeah, but thank goodness not too many. The most famous one was on Governor Nicholls Street. Danny Kessler who worked with RCA came here and put an ad in the paper. That was a disaster—we had people lined up around the block. The bottom line was that Kessler signed Allen Toussaint who had been hired to accompany these people. That how that album The Wild Sounds of Al Tousan got recorded. Kessler realized Allen was the guy he should have recorded, not the people off the street.
Did you outgrow the original studio?
Oh no. The first studio was part of the business in front of it. Eventually I sold the [appliance] business in the front and I was operating the studio behind it. It became inconvenient getting in and out of the studio. I had an opportunity to by a building at 523/525 Governor Nicholls Street so I moved the studio there. It had a carriageway down the center. On the left side was the office and the disc mastering, on the right side was the studio and control room.
You did a lot more recording than the hits we’re accustomed to hearing about?
Sure, I was running a business. We did custom recordings, spoken word, and a lot of jingles too. We did a lot of stuff for Fitzgerald Advertising which had the Jax Beer and Blue Plate accounts. Jingles back then were fairly simple—we called them donuts. They had a beginning and ending piece of music—we just had to fill in the middle.
Did you do any remote recordings?
Yes, on Rampart Street I bought a portable mono tape machine. To transport it you had to put the electronics in the trunk of one car and the mechanics in another. I did Al Hirt and Pete Fountain on it for Radio Free Europe. In fact I remember doing some of the early rhythm and blues recordings for the Braun Brothers on the stage at Booker T. Washington High School with that machine.
What was your schedule like?
Basically I lived in the studio. I had to record when people wanted to record. A lot of sessions started at one or two in the morning after the musicians got off their club dates. People from out in the country would come on Saturday and Sundays. Jingles were done more business like, they started at 9 or 10 in the morning.
Did you not have any local competition?
Studios came and went. The radio stations did work and the original studio, National Radio Recordings in the Godchaux Building, was in business for a while. There was also violin teacher, Kinlisky, on St. Charles Avenue who had a little disc machine and he made records for his students and other people.
What do you remember about Mac Rebennack?
Well I knew his dad first, he was a wonderful guy. Mac came by the studio because he was interested in the music. I remember his mother—she adored Mac and called him ‘Mackie.’ Mac went to her and said he wanted to drop out of high school. She called me and told me about it and I told her, “Don’t let him do it. He can do everything he needs to do and still finish high school.” But Mac prevailed.
Mac is an amusingly talented man. I don’t recall when he first recorded, but it was like he started hanging around, then he was part of the conversation, then he was part of the band. Mac got into drugs so he was writing songs as fast as he could and selling them. He also did as many sessions as he could. He wound up playing on Bourbon Street in two different bands and rehearsing two other bands to make money to buy drugs. Still it wasn’t enough. Drugs serve you first and then they become your master. Luckily Mac was able to overcome them.
When did you leave Governor Nicholls and move to Camp Street?
1964. I sold the building to a real estate developer. I bought the building on Camp Street, because it had a big room and it was cheap. It was an old stationery warehouse. We did the early Meters record there.
Is there a chance they might recreate a hybrid of you studio at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame?
Well, it’s just a thought in people’s minds right now but it might happen. Ahmet Ertegun (a board member of the Hall of Fame) said, “Why don’t you see if you can find the original piano that was in the studio.” Well, fat chance of that but they want to do some kind of New Orleans display.
I think in the last year or so the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame has finally begun to appreciate the contribution the Deep South has made to music, as opposed to the Memphis/Nashville contribution. Not to belittle what they did, but New Orleans was up with the big boys, too.
Part of the reason we’ve been overlooked by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is our fault, including me. When they came down here a few years ago looking for artifacts and mementos, we didn’t give them anything. Me, I just didn’t save photographs or the historic items I probably should have.
In retrospect what do you feel is your greatest lifetime achievement?
Surviving (laughs). But really, first, I was persistent and hung in there during the good and the bad times. Secondly, I always felt obligated to do the very best I could. The third was, I didn’t mind taking a chance. I did stuff on spec all the time because I felt almost obligated to do it. I might not have been a good businessman at the time, but looking back on how things turned out, I think I did the right thing.
Do you finally feel like you’ve created history?
Absolutely, but at the time I was unaware of it. Now I look at those days and say, “Gee, wasn’t it wonderful!”