NEW ORLEANS – Cosimo Matassa is a giant in the music industry who will be recognized Saturday by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for helping give birth to rock and roll.
He did so by helping to shape what has come to be known as the New Orleans sound, while also recording rhythm and blues hits at his J&M Music Shop on N. Rampart St., beginning in the mid-1940s.
Most of New Orleans’ greatest performers, including Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, Dr. John and Professor Longhair recorded there, along with national artists Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles.
In 2010, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named the site of J&M a landmark. The site at Rampart and Dumaine is now home to a laundromat, with plaques marking its place in music history.
Despite all of the honors he has received, including a Grammy and now the induction into the Hall of Fame, Matassa has always been uncomfortable with the spotlight.
“I don’t want to come across with this false modesty crap, but I always want people to remember that I didn’t play. The musicians played,” he told us in a 2007 interview to mark his special Grammy Trustees Award.
“It was my studio and I did what I could to concoct what they did. A record is a performance frozen in time, if you want to look at it like that, so I was looking for performances. And trying to put performers on record, and happily the guys out in the studio performed.”
Now, more than a half century later, we look back and realize history was made here in New Orleans at Matassa's recording studio. But at the time he had no idea this would be something that would last.
“I get this question more from Europeans when they come to do an interview. They expect me to have had some sense of history,” Matassa said. “As if I heard a record and I knew it was going to be something we would be talking about 30 years later. Not a chance.”
“We were all busy making a living, paying the rent and the groceries, he said. “We were having a good time. It was a great way to make a living, I can tell you that right now. But there was no sense of history, certainly not with me.
"Now, you know, you’d always think, ‘Oh, that record’s good. But back then, on single records, somebody chose the A side and somebody chose the B side. Often enough, it was the B side that ended up being the popular record, which proves that all of us who knew a lot didn’t know enough. The public decides.”
And the public did decide. What came out of Matassa’s studio was something they wanted. He says he recorded more than 1,000 hit records at J&M over the years. Now with the passing of time, he does finally acknowledge he is part of music history.
“Absolutely, I’d be a fool not to think that,” Matassa said. “But I always am cautious about taking credit for something I didn’t do. I didn’t play it. Other people played it, wonderful New Orleans musicians played it.”
Matassa’s story is even more special when you realize that J&M didn’t open as a recording studio.
“It was a record shop and appliance store and a little room in the back for people to make personal recordings,” he explained. “Some guy brings his 10-year-old daughter in because she’s going to do something at a music recital and he wants a copy to keep.”
And we're all grateful it morphed into so much more, becoming one of the most famous recording studios in America, for rock and roll, R&B and the New Orleans sound, with humble beginnings in the back of a record and appliance store and now all the way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Matassa joins a long list of other New Orleans inductees into the Hall of Fame: Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Lloyd Price, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
This year's inductees are: Guns N' Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Donovan, Laura Nyro, The Small Faces/Faces, The Crickets, The Famous Flames, The Midnighters, The Comets, the Blue Caps and the Miracles. Matassa is being inducted in the "sidemen" category for non-performers, alongside Don Kirshner, Tom Dowd and Glyn Johns. Musician Freddie King is also being honored posthumously.