If there is one man who singularly charted the course for New Orleans’ contribution to the world of popular music, that man is Cosimo Matassa. Modest almost to a fault, were it not for Matassa’s engineering skills, a vast chunk of rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and jazz history would have gone unrecorded and unheralded and “the New Orleans Sound,” as we know it today, may never have been. Having cut virtually every record to come out of New Orleans from 1945 to 1969, his intuitive love and understanding of both music and people carried over to three different locations in that time period, but his magic touch and patented sound remained unchanged.
The disparate factors that led up to Matassa presiding over New Orleans’—and in fact, Louisiana’s—first recording studio include graduating from Warren Easton High School at the age of 15, dropping out of Tulane after becoming disenchanted with his chosen major of chemistry, and the sudden end of the second World War just prior to the arrival of his draft notice. “When the war ended and I didn’t get drafted,” Cosimo recalls, “my father, being an old time Italian, said it was either go to work or go to school, you’re not gonna sit on your butt.” He was soon heading up sessions in the back room of the family’s newly-opened appliance store on North Rampart Street, resulting in discs like Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man” that ignited the fuse of rock ‘n’ roll.
‘There was no sense of history,” Matassa told Todd Mouton in these pages back in 1997. “Nobody ever felt like we were producing great art.” Yet that’s exactly what was happening, and the avalanche of massively influential rock ‘n’ roll and R&B hits that he’d record in the next two decades was nothing short of staggering.
The keynote speaker for TapeOpCon—set to take place in New Orleans at the Fairmont Hotel and the Orpheum Theater May 28-30—Matassa recently sat down in the office of his family’s French Quarter grocery store to answer questions about his impressive career as one of the most deservedly revered names in all of music.
Growing up in New Orleans, did you hear a lot of music during your childhood?
Yeah. I came up in the French Quarter and in those days the French Quarter was real. It was a blue-collar Italian ghetto&mdashthats the best way to describe it&mdashfilled, literally, with 15,000 people compared to today when theres 1,400 registered voters in the entire French Quarter. Back then it was families, all working people, and it was integrated. We didn’t know it; it was just a matter of fact that we lived together; blacks and whites side by side. There was no big issue over it, the only time there was an issue was when you involved the governmental thing: black kids went to one school, white kids went to another. But as neighbors, we lived as neighbors: you’d pass food over the fence and things like that. It was really nice. And there was a lot of music. There were musicians living in the Quarter and of course, playing, and right around here there were at least three guys that were big in the Indian groups so I used to see them making their suits and things like that. And I was brought up right in the middle of it all.
You were 18 years old when J&M Studio opened in 1945. How did it come about?
Well, my father owned a half interest in a business that put jukeboxes in bars and restaurants on a commission basis and when the war was over we opened a store on Rampart and Dumaine that sold appliances and records. In the process of designing the place, his partner, Joe Mancuso, said, “Why don’t we put a little room in the back where people can make records?”—thinking in terms of people wanting to make personal records. So that’s what we did. The room was very well designed acoustically, we put a professional system in, and it fell to me to run it. Little by little I did less and less of everything else and more and more of that until I was doing nothing but recording.
The opening of your studio paralleled the rise of independent record labels like De Luxe, Imperial, Specialty, Modern, and Chess, all of whom cut some of their most well-known sides there. What was the recording scene like back then?
The one common denominator of all those little independent companies is that they all loved the music, even the crooked ones. Before World War II—except for a very few exceptional people who came down South and found it—local music was ignored. The big record companies did routinely ordinary music and they dominated the business, absolutely dominated it. They dominated the technology for recording and manufacturing the records and they controlled—through their distributorships—where the records were sold. The war broke that up by scattering the people who had the technology in their minds, so little pressing plants and recording studios popped up and guys would start labels, saying, “I think this guy singing in this club is so great, I’m gonna see that he makes a record.” It still happens today, but its not as much of a grass roots thing as it was back then.
What approach did you take to recording?
It was simple. I’d stand in the studio and listen to the band and then go in the control room and make it sound like what I heard in the studio. So that was no big deal. But in the process I had to learn about microphones, how they really work, things like that. And I did. I joined the Audio Engineering Society, went to the conventions, got to meet and talk with and listen to speeches by the really good people in the business. By going to New York or Chicago or Los Angeles where they had the conventions, I got to visit with some of the guys in the studios, so that helped. When you talk shop with people who are experts you learn something.
You’ve often characterized your role as a recording engineer as “freezing moments in time,” which, to me, is exactly why a lot of the records you cut sound so magical today.
Well, that’s exactly what it was, like a photograph. With the disc there wasn’t even editing—the musicians played from beginning to end and that’s what you got. Tape was an amazing jump forward but then you started to hear performances that never took place. It’s to the point now where one person can play and sing every part. I don’t have a problem with that, I just think that if you put five or six musicians together in a room they play differently than five or six musicians—or even one musician—doing a series of overdubs.
Where do you stand on the “analog versus digital” argument?
I think it’s a moot argument because for me it’s the performance that counts. If you get somebody that plays well and you get a decent recording, I don’t care how you did it. Performance, songs—good songs are better than bad songs—I don’t know what’s so hard to understand about that. And I like to distinguish between a player and an entertainer. Because there are a lot of people who play well but they’re not really entertainers. The entertainers come off better because they’re transmitting the emotion better. And that, to me, is critical. It’s why every now and then, if I’m at one of these almost esoteric jazz things where some guy’s off into the wild blue yonder somewhere, what I miss is the fact that he’s not playing to or for me, he’s playing for himself. There’s nothing wrong with that except that it leaves me out.
Whereas, say, Little Richard was not only performing for his audience on stage, he was also performing in the studio?
Absolutely. You can listen to it and its not hard to tell.
Was there much recognition in New Orleans for what you were doing back then?
Well, Dave Bartholomew did something like 20 straight million-selling singles with Fats Domino that The Times-Picayune never heard of. In simple terms—why be cute about it?—we were the “nigger studio,” so the best thing to do was ignore us. And they did. Very successfully.
It seems that now that everyone is aware of the R&B and rock ‘n’ roll that you recorded, history has ignored a lot of the other music that you cut over the years.
Well, once again, the public conception—especially in the publications and radio stations here—was that I ran a black studio. And while I did a lot of great stuff with black guys I also did Cajun people, country people, three or four different kinds of jazz, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain…
You cut some amazing country records but they’ve been totally overshadowed by the R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.
On the weekends I did a lot of country and Cajun sessions and we really had a good time. Guys would come in from Houma and Breaux Bridge and Lafourche and it was almost like family They’d bring food with them, sometimes they’d bring me a hamper of crabs for myself. It was a whole other world, just really neat. There were a couple of studios out in the country that did great, great stuff that nobody seems to be aware of, like J.D. Miller’s in Crowley. J.D. Miller, let me tell you, for body of work—the total of the stuff he did—has got to be one of the greatest that ever turned a knob in a studio. And if you say J.D. Miller the average guy looks at you with a blank stare: “Who?”
One of the most underrated periods in your studio were the years 1961 to 1964, when Huey Meaux was producing people like Joe Barry, Joey Long and Barbara Lynn.
Huey used to come to town with two briefcases. One was his actual briefcase and the other one was filled with pills. Red ones, green ones, blue ones, multi-colored ones…and he used to stay at the Jung Hotel. He had two rooms at the Jung; one was his room and the other one was where he met people. And he’d get a DJ in there and say, “Man, look, I need some airplay, help yourself, just take what you want!” So the guy would leave with a little plastic bag full of pills and Huey would get airplay. Hustle with a capital H!
It’s interesting that rather than using the players that you already had in the studio—which many of the out-of-town producers did—Meaux brought most of his musicians in from the Bayou Lafourche area.
Well, once you find guys…it’s like here. How many times are you going to find somebody to replace an Earl Palmer? Once you find him you say, “Every chance I get, you’re on!” And he did the same thing. A lot of people don’t have a conception of what a recording session really is—you’re not there to show ’em how good you play, you’re not there to be the life of the party, you’re there to create records. You’ve gotta have that focus. Like with Dave Bartholomew. With Dave, you had that focus or you weren’t going to be there.
What was Dave like in the studio?
He was a strict task master. A lot of people don’t realize that he made Fats Domino. Not to not give Fats credit because he’s a hell of a performer, but if there hadn’t have been a Dave Bartholomew there wouldn’t have been a Fats Domino. Because Dave gave his sessions focus. If it had been up to Fats, we’d have doodled all day and nothing would have happened. But Dave gave it focus and direction and impetus and also supplied most of the songs.
How about Mac Rebennack?
If you just talked about something for long enough with Mac, he’d improve it. His mind worked that way, he was a naturally creative person, still is. When Mac started hangin’ around the studio I think he was like 14 or 15 years old. I can remember trying to talk his mother into not letting him drop out of high school. He was rehearsing his band at home and he wanted to do it full time and I said, “Mrs. Rebennack, don’t let him do it.” And she said, “Well, Mackie wants to do it.” When she said that I thought, “Here’s a doting mother who wants to let her son do what he wants to do.” And she let him do it. But his parents were wonderful people, his mother’s still living. I knew his father because he was in the same business as I was—part of my business was repairing TVs and radios and that’s what he was doing. Once, maybe twice a week, somebody would come to town looking for someone to record and I’d take ’em to where Mac was playing and say, “Here’s some guys you can use to back up whoever you want to record.”
And thank God you were there to capture it all.
Well, the players played, I didn’t. A lot of great musicians made me look good. It’s why I’m trying to do a book, because it’s the players who get ignored, the guys who actually did the music. Everybody knows the five, six, seven names that stick out and nobody knows the rest of ’em. For instance, at the same time and a little after Mac and his first couple of different bands there must have been 15 good white bands playing that kind of stuff. But nobody plays their records anymore, you don’t hear anything about them, much less what they did or where there are any recordings of them. New Orleans was turning players out right and left, just oozing musicians. You could almost not get a bad musician down here. It was fabulous.