Cracking the Cosimo Code

At this point, no one really needs to be reminded that Cosimo Matassa engineered thousands of recordings in the succession of New Orleans studios he owned over a three-decade period. He got his start in the late 1940’s in the back room of the North Rampart Street J&M Music shop which he co-owned with his partner Frank Mancuso. His early clients nearly all consisted of out-of-town labels like DeLuxe, Regal, Imperial, Specialty, Atlantic and Aladdin. Success was steady with Fats Domino, Roy Brown, Lloyd Price, Guitar Slim and Joe Turner recording hits there., Cosimo Matassa, vinyl records lets you in on the secret behind Cosimo Matassa's cryptic labeling system.

By 1955, Matassa had outgrown the original studio and moved a few blocks away into what was once an avocado warehouse on Governor Nicholls Street (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie currently live in that renovated building). Renaming it Cosimo’s Studio, Matassa continued to cater to out-of-town clients, but also began adding new business, as an increasing number of local entrepreneurs got into the record business. By the end of the decade, regional labels like Ace, Rex (Matassa’s imprint), Minit, Instant, Ric and Ron were looking for a piece of the pie. Once they got a slice, lots of other people wanted a taste too. By the early 1960’s, dozens of New Orleans labels had sprung up, nearly all employing Matassa’s studio.

The study of New Orleans music, which has been ongoing for over half-a-century, can often be a frustrating task. For years, scholars, record hounds, DJ’s and writers have tried to establish a timeline for the thousands of recordings made in New Orleans. Label issue numbers, trade ads and chart entries helped, but the stumbling block was the aptly named “Cosimo Code.” Recently though, the code was successfully cracked by a Scottish record collector, David Gordon.

Beginning in October of 1960, Matassa began giving a cryptic, hyphenated matrix number to each song he recorded. The matrix number was stamped in tiny print on the paper labels and scratched onto the wax next to the label. Most local record companies maintained these numbers; out-of-town labels generally used their own numbering system. The problem was that the Matassa matrix numbers seemed to make little sense, and thus the recordings were hard to place in chronological order. Turns out, the answer to the puzzle was nearly as plain as the nose on your face. Gordon found that the first half of the number identified Matassa’s client (the label). The second half of the number was the numerical order of the recording. For example, Huey Smith’s “Somebody Told It” has a matrix number of 94-1185. That meant the recording belonged to Ace Records (94) and the second half of the number places it in chronological order with other Matassa recordings. (launched in late March) is not only a wonderful information tool, but also a tribute to one of the most important individuals in New Orleans music—Cosimo Matassa.