The Award for Musical Excellence
Cosimo Matassa (producer, studio owner; April 13, 1926 – September 11, 2014)
Cosimo Matassa’s studio was the center of the New Orleans recording scene for two decades. Some of the greatest rhythm & blues and rock and roll sides of all time were laid down in Matassa’s small, unpretentious room, including seminal recordings by Fats Domino and Little Richard. Roughly 250 nationally charting singles and 21 gold records were cut at Matassa’s studio. These include virtually every hit by Fats Domino, beginning in 1948 with “The Fat Man,” as well as such New Orleans R&B classics as “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” by Lloyd Price, “Mother-in-Law” by Ernie K-Doe, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” by Roy Brown and “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Big Joe Turner.
Matassa, whose first name is pronounced “Cosmo,” was born and raised in New Orleans, where he worked at his father’s corner grocery store. After studying chemistry at Tulane University, he dropped out and began working for J&M Services, a jukebox business that he eventually bought. Matassa identified and filled a need on the New Orleans music scene in the mid-Forties. It was a city full of talented musicians but lacked recording studios. “For a long time, I was the only show in town,” he noted.
Opened in 1945, Matassa’s original J&M Studio occupied a room at the back of his J&M Appliance Store and Record Shop, located at 838-840 Rampart Street (on the corner of Dumaine, at the edge of the French Quarter). The room was only 15-by-16 feet in size, “as big as my four fingers,” joked Matassa. In the early years, Matassa recorded direct to disc until he could afford a tape-recording system. J&M Studio operated at its Rampart Street address until 1956, when Matassa moved to a new location on Governor Nicholls Street, which he simply called Cosimo’s Studio.
Over the years Matassa worked closely with bandleader-arranger Dave Bartholomew and a stellar corps of New Orleans musicians that included drummer Earl Palmer, keyboardist Huey “Piano” Smith, and saxophonists Lee Allen and Alvin “Red” Taylor. All were involved in the recording of Fats Domino’s and Little Richard’s hits during their phenomenal runs in the Fifties.
The list of notable musicians who recorded at Matassa’s studio, in addition to those already mentioned, includes Smiley Lewis (“I Heart You Knockin’"), Shirley and Lee (“Let the Good Times Roll”), Guitar Slim (“The Things That I Used to Do,” featuring Ray Charles on piano), Frankie Ford (“Sea Cruise”), Professor Longhair (“Mardi Gras in New Orleans”), Paul Gayten (“Since I Fell for You”) and Chris Kenner (“Land of 1,000 Dances”).
Music journalist Emily Gaul asked Matassa, “What do you think defines the New Orleans sound?” He responded: “It’s a party sound. New Orleans was a partying town because it wasn’t a very wealthy town. The ethnic makeup of New Orleans was such that music was part of everybody’s lives.”
In the Sixties, Matassa started his own label, Dover Records, to compete with all the out-of-town companies signing New Orleans talent. He even got involved in distribution, handling two national hits – Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’” and Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is” – for local labels. After leaving the music business in the Eighties, he returned to work at Matassa’s Grocery, his family’s business for three generations.
Reflecting back on his life in music in a 1999 Goldmine interview, Matassa described his role as one of facilitator. “It was to get the performance and the performer on the tape with the least interference and the least resistance,” he said.
But Matassa’s contributions went far beyond that. Legendary New Orleans producer and pianist Allen Toussaint referred to Matassa as “a genius with worlds of information.... We all came through Cosimo.” Matassa passed away on September 11, 2014.