Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Cosimo Vincent Matassa [pronounced Cosmo], 13 August 1926, New Orleans; d there 11 September 2014, New Orleans, aged 88) Recording engineer, whose work changed the sound of American popular music. His family has owned a grocery store in the French quartet for three generations. He studied chemistry at Tulane University, but dropped out; he and a business partner bought a grocery store and turned it into an appliance store, where they also sold used records (is father also had a jukebox business), leading to selling new records, and the realization that there was no place to record in New Orleans.

He opened a tiny J & M Recording Studio, the first of four locations, the initials from both his father, John, and his father's business partner, Joe Mancuso. His success came quickly, because of his ability to get the most out of primitive equipment. Initially in 1946 he had only a disc-cutting machine, making recordings that could not be edited, and Fats Domino once stopped in the middle of a recording, ruining the take, to ask, 'How do I sound?'

He encouraged the artists to perform as though they were playing and singing for an audience. The Cosimo sound came to be known as the New Orleans sound, heavy on the bass and drums, lighter on the piano and the horns. He knew that a record wasn't going to sell unless it made people want to get up and dance. It is not too much to say that rock'n'roll began when Roy Brown recorded 'Good Rockin' Tonight' in 1947, but another landmark was in 1949 when Fats Domino recorded eight tracks including 'The Fat Man', his first hit in the R&B chart. When Domino's hits began crossing over into the pop chart in 1955, it was clear that American music would never be the same again.

The independent labels that emerged after World War II recorded at J & M; Chess, Aladdin, De Luxe, Atlantic, Savoy and Specialty, among others, used the studio, at first for just $15 an hour. Over 250 national hit singles and 21 gold records were recorded at the studio, by legendary names including Little Richard, Big Joe Turner, Professor Longhair, Smiley Lewis and many more. An important part of the story was bandleader and arranger Dave Bartholomew, who discovered Fats Domino and directed many of the recording sessions.

Matassa received a Grammy for his lifetime achievement in 2007 and was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. One wonders how many people realize that the joyous excitement of a Matassa hit came from the fact that, as he told John Broven, 'they were really performances as opposed to the synthesized record you make today.' It is harder to capture excitement at a recording session where everybody is wearing headphones and looking forward to weeks of post-production.

Matassa played down his own importance, puzzled that people thought he must have had a sense of history in the making. He said in an interview in 2007 at WWL-TV, '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.'

For further reading: John Broven's Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans, first published in 1974 and also known as Walking To New Orleans; and Jeff Hannusch's I Hear You Knockin’: The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues (1985).