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Cosimo Matassa

Renowned studio owner and recording engineer Cosimo Matassa died in his New Orleans hometown on September 11 at the age of 88. Born on April 13, 1926, he had been in failing health for some time. It’s no exaggeration to say that he helped create the sound of rock’n’roll, along with other great recording pioneers such as Bill Putnam of Chicago and Sam Phillips of Memphis.

It was in 1945 that Matassa, not yet 20, co-founded J&M Recording Studios with Joe Mancuso at838-840 North Rampart Streeton the edge of the French Quarter. The first significant hit to come out of the facility was Roy Brown’s ‘Good Rocking Tonight’ (De Luxe, 1948). A key moment came in December 1949 when Lew Chudd of Imperial Records fromLos Angeles signed Fats Domino. With Dave Bartholomew producing, ‘The Fat Man’ was an instant R&B jukebox success. Thus the way was paved for the early Domino hits, which established not only Imperial as a major player in the rhythm & blues field, but also the basic J&M studios.

Another auspicious event happened when Art Rupe’s Specialty label, also from the West Coast, recorded Lloyd Price’s ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ in 1952. It was one of the first R&B records that crossed over to the white teen market, preparing the way for rock’n’roll. Then in September 1955 Little Richard’s ‘Tutti-Frutti’ helped to blow open rock’n’roll.

By early 1956 Matassa had closed down J&M and set up a better facility, Cosimo Recording Studios, atGovernor Nicholls Streetwithin the French Quarter. At these studios, Matassa rolled out hit after hit and classic after classic, including ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ (Shirley & Lee), ‘I’m Walking’ and many others by Fats Domino, ‘Don’t You Just Know It’ (Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Clowns), ‘Just A Dream’ (Jimmy Clanton) and ‘Sea Cruise’ (Frankie Ford).

In the 1960s, the New Orleans sounds became funkier and more soulful through the productions of Allen Toussaint and Wardell Quezergue, all the while captured by Matassa and his assistants including Seth David, Skip Godwin and Bert Frilot. The hits still poured out of Cosimo Recording Studios, notably the later Fats Domino Imperial singles headed by ‘Walking to New Orleans’, Jessie Hill’s ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ (Minit), Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry’s ‘But I Do’ (Argo), Ernie K-Doe’s ‘Mother-In-Law’ – the facility’s only No. 1 pop hit (Minit), Chris Kenner’s ‘I Like It Like That’ (Instant), Lee Dorsey’s ‘Ya Ya’ (Fire), Robert Parker’s ‘Barefootin’’ (Nola) and Aaron Neville’s ‘Tell It Like It Is’ (Par Lo).

The Parker and Neville hits were distributed by Dover Records, an organization founded by Matassa to act as a one-stop service for small New Orleans labels, from recording to pressing to marketing. Dover collapsed in 1968, effectively marking the end of the Cosimo studios – and New Orleans R&B. Following this disaster, Matassa established Jazz City Studio but it was never the same.

For all his self-effacing modesty, Cosimo Matassa was able to take pride in his twilight years in seeing tangible recognition in the form of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement in Music Business Award in 2007, historic landmark status for J&M studios by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. It was no less than this treasure of a man deserved for the pleasure he’s given to record collectors throughout the world. As byproducts of his life’s work, artists’ careers have been enhanced, record labels have been enriched, local tourism has benefitted – and many classic New Orleans R&B performances have been preserved forever. That’s not a bad legacy, is it?  

A selection of the 1960s R&B and soul singles was released on Ace CD some two weeks before Matassa passed: ‘Cracking the Cosimo Code’ (CDTOP 1402). For a listing of the 1960s recordings, visit the website                  

John Broven

John Broven authored the first book on New Orleans R&B, ‘Walking to New Orleans’, in 1974. The book is still in print in the United States as ‘Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans’ (Pelican Publishing). An upgraded and revised version is currently being finalised after all these years; included will be later interviews with Cosimo Matassa. 

Image courtesy of the John Broven Collection, Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress