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Cosimo Matassa Made His Reputation Behind The Studio Glass


A rock and roll legend has died. But Cosimo Matassa didn't wield a guitar or pound the keyboards. He made his reputation behind the glass of the studio wall. Matassa died yesterday in a New Orleans hospital at the age of 88. From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett has this appreciation.

DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: Music scholars like to talk about a New Orleans sound of the 1950s - choppy guitar and syncopated piano laid over a strong rhythm track and topped by powerful vocals.


LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) Bop bopa-a-lu a whop bam boo. Tutti frutti, au- rutti. Tutti frutti, aw rooty. Tutti frutti, aw rooty. Tutti frutti, aw rooty. Tutti frutti, aw rooty.

BARNETT: One of the main reasons that sound is so familiar is because Cosimo Matassa put it on tape. His J&M Studios recorded some of the most famous rock and rhythm and blues performers to come out of the Crescent City - Little Richard, Lloyd Price, Professor Longhair and Fats Domino.


FATS DOMINO: (Singing) Yes, it's me and I'm in love again. Had no lovin' since you know when. You know I love you, yes, I do. And I'm savin' all my lovin' just for you.

BARNETT: Like his contemporaries Sam Phillips in Memphis, Matassa ran a low-budget recording operation. And he was a stickler for sound. When his studio was honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, Matassa told me that he sometimes bent musicians' union rules that dictated how long a recording session could be.


COSIMO MATASSA: The session was three hours - period. But we recorded whatever it took.

HERB HARDESTY: We're talking about eight, 10 hours or more - 15 hours sometimes.

BARNETT: Herb Hardesty played tenor on many of Fats Domino's sessions and recalls Matassa as a patient man in the studio. Mac Rebennack, better known as Doctor John, was a session guitarist and pianist on a number of those J&M Studio recordings. And in a 2011 interview, he said Cosimo Matassa had a keen sense of what his equipment could do.

MAC REBENNACK: He know how to use the mics. Cos' had the horn section lean into the mic to play a solo so he didn't have to change a mix. The guys did it they-self.


FRANKIE FORD: (Singing) Old Man Rhythm is in my shoes. It's no use sittin' here singin' the blues. So be my guest, you got nothin' to lose. Won't you let me take you on a sea cruise.

BARNETT: Each of the regional recording studios had their own sounds, says music scholar John Broven. And at J&M Studios, the room became another instrument in the mix.

JOHN BROVEN: So in other words, you could listen to a New Orleans record in the 1950s and you could say yourself that was made at Cosimo Matassa's studio.

BARNETT: The sound of J&M Studios was also informed by the multiracial character of the sessions. In a tiny recording studio in the deep South of the 1950s, just a few feet from the place where slaves were sold a century before, Cosimo Matassa, the son of a Sicilian immigrant, ran a colorblind operation that captured the sound of his community, says his son Michael.

MICHAEL MATASSA: When my dad was doing it, there was a community. My dad worked with black people when nobody else was really going to. He helped them do what they were capable of doing.

C. MATASSA: We were sort of class-united against the rest of the world, you know, in the true sense of that.

BARNETT: And Cosimo Matassa sent that message out to the rest of the world through music. For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.