Cosimo Matassa, the legendary recording engineer and studio owner who helped introduce and shape New Orleans' early rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll sound and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and recognized with a Grammy for his efforts, died Thursday. He was 88.
Matassa was sidelined by a stroke in recent years and his health had declined over the past few months, according to his family.
Matassa's face, or even his name, may not have been known to some, but the sound he helped create defined a generation. From the 1940s through the 1970s, his recording studios, including the well-known J&M Studios on North Rampart Street, recorded Fats Domino, Little Richard, Professor Longhair, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis, Dr. John, Sam Cooke and many others.
As an engineer, Matassa worked closely with producers and arrangers Dave Bartholomew, Allen Toussaint and others to shape what became known as "the New Orleans Sound" of the 1950s and 1960s.
"I don't want to come across with false modesty, but I always want people to remember that I didn't play. The musicians played. It was my studio and I did what I could to concoct what I could," he told WWL-TV anchor Eric Paulsen in a 2007 interview. "A record is a performance frozen in time, so I was looking for good performances and trying to put performers on record, and happily the guys out in the studio performed."
Matassa engineered Domino's very first recording session in 1949, with Bartholomew directing the band and producing the session. Recording eight songs that day, including "The Fat Man," it was the moment that launched their hit-making musical careers. For the next decade, Domino and Bartholomew used J&M and Matassa's other studios to record their string of chart-topping hits.
The list of other songs recorded by Matassa at his studio is another testament to his importance in music history. In addition to dozens of Domino's hits, the seminal recordings "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," "Tipitina," "I Hear You Knocking," and "Long Tall Sally" were all recorded by Matassa. Three recordings identified by some as the first rock 'n' roll records were also his work: Domino's "The Fat Man," Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight" and Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti." Other local and national R&B hits recorded by Matassa included Aaron Neville's "Tell It Like It Is," Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise," K-Doe's "Mother-In-Law" and Robert Parker's "Barefootin'" as well as Art Neville and the Hawketts' "Mardi Gras Mambo," Clarence "Frogman" Henry's "Ain't Got No Home," Al Johnson's "Carnival Time," Shirley and Lee's "Let the Good Times Roll" and many other landmark 1960s recordings by Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Benny Spellman and Chris Kenner.
"I always tried to capture the dynamics of a live performance," Matassa said in an interview to mark his 2012 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "These guys were doing these songs on their gigs and that was the sound that I was trying to get. We didn't have any gimmicks – no overdubbing, no reverb – nothing. Those guys played with a lot of excitement; and I felt if I couldn't put it in the groove, people weren't going to move."
According to an online profile by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Matassa's on-the-job training developed his technique over time. Musicians who recorded there said he had a knack for microphone placement and, according to Dr. John, he rarely changed input levels once they were set for a session.
"He would set the knobs for the session and rarely moved anything," Rebennack said in John Broven's book, Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans. "He developed what is known as the 'Cosimo Sound,' which was strong drums, heavy bass, light piano, heavy guitar and light horn sound with a strong vocal lead. That was the start of what eventually became known as the 'New Orleans Sound.'"
An Italian-American and New Orleans native, Matassa's father John emigrated from Sicily in 1910. In 1924, Matassa opened a small grocery store at the corner of Dauphine and St. Philip Streets, which remains a fixture in the French Quarter. Young Cosimo grew up working in the grocery store and after graduating from McDonogh 15 and Warren Easton High School, he enrolled in Tulane University's chemistry program, but dropped out after about two years.
"When I finally realized what a chemist was, I decided not to be one," he once said, according to the LEH profile. Since he was ineligible to be drafted into the military for physical reasons, his father gave him a choice: go back to school or start working.
He started working, but not in the grocery business. In addition to the market, John Matassa and his partner also ran J&M Amusement Services, placing jukeboxes in bars and restaurants. Cosimo began selling used records from the jukeboxes, and after noting the interest from customers in buying records, in 1945, he bought recording equipment and converted a room in the back of the family's J&M Appliance Store & Record Shop into a "studio."
The room was only 15-by-16 feet in size, with a control room "as big as my four fingers," joked Matassa in a story to mark his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the early years, Matassa recorded direct to disc until he could afford a tape-recording system. At first the equipment was used by amateurs to make personal recordings or demos. Soon, the dearth of recording studios in town led professional musicians and record producers to J&M.
After his early successes as a professional recording studio, in 1956, Matassa moved his studio to from Rampart to 523 Governor Nicholls Street and, two years later, to 525 Governor Nicholls. According to the LEH KnowLa Encyclopedia of Louisiana profile, "the latter had been a cold-storage warehouse for avocados and its cork-covered walls were ideal for a recording studio." Matassa changed the name to Cosimo's Recording Studio since, according to Matassa, "Cosimo's" was what everyone had called the old studio anyway. Around 1965, Matassa moved his studio yet again, this time to 748 Camp Street, and named it Jazz City.
Matassa also started his own record label and music distribution business, as well as opening a pressing plant and managing singer Jimmy Clanton. Matassa endured the ups and downs of the music business, including dealing with unsympathetic banks who were reluctant to lend money to someone in his line of work. He retired from the music business in the 1980s to help run the family grocery, Matassa's Market, which is now run by his sons and granddaughter.
Though always humble about his contributions to the music world, Matassa was fortunate enough to enjoy the honors bestowed upon him and J&M in recent years. In December 1999, the former Rampart Street studio was designated as a local historic landmark, with a plaque placed on the exterior of the building, which now houses a laundromat. In 2010, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named the site a historic landmark, one of just 11 across the country.
"People expect me to have some sense of history, as though I'd hear a record and know this was going to be something we'd be talking about 30 years later. Not a chance," he said in the 2007 WWL-TV interview with Paulsen. "We were all busy making a living. We had a hell of a good time and it was a great way to make a living, but no, there was no sense of history. Certainly not with me."
Matassa was slowed down in recent years by health issues, but was able to attend several events honoring him and the music he helped create. He was honored with a special Grammy Trustees Award in 2007 and Loyola University New Orleans awarded him an honorary degree in 2011. Also, Offbeat Magazine honored him as the first recipient of its Best of The Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music Business award.
He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honors in 2012. He joined a list of inductees that year which included the Beastie Boys, Guns 'n' Roses and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Matassa and his wife, Jennie, were married for 65 years before her death in 2009.
Survivors include his three sons: John, Michael and Louis Matassa; seven grandchildren: Cindy Matassa Diffenbaugh, Mia Matassa, Sophia Matassa Campo, Chris Matassa, John Matassa Jr., and Mamie Matassa. He is also survived by eight great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements have not been finalized.