The Cosimo sound: New Orleans’ role in the birth of rock
In the early 1940s, Cosimo Matassa closed the book on his chemistry career, walking away from his Tulane University studies. With his father making it clear in no uncertain terms that he would have to get a job, the young Matassa opened a record and appliance store at 838-840 North Rampart St. In 1945, he would fatefully add a tiny recording studio in a back room. That humble studio — dubbed J&M Recording Studios — would become a key cog in an American musical revolution, as Matassa would record there and in his studio’s later locations a string of musical pioneers, producing not just what would become known as “the New Orleans sound” but helping to define a budding musical style that would soon take the world by storm: rock ‘n’ roll.
The North Rampart Street building that housed the original J&M is now occupied by a coin-op laundry, but it is still a rock ‘n’ roll shrine. The city installed a plaque in front of the building in 1999 to mark its historical significance, and it was declared a Rock and Roll Landmark in 2010. “The baby got rocked right here in this building,” Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame Museum President Terry Stewart said at the dedication.
- Matassa was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 as a non-performer. In addition, the Recording Academy honored him with its prestigious Trustees Award in 2007.
- Matassa’s original recording studio measured only 15 by 16 feet and, in the early days, he used just one microphone and a direct-to-disc system that didn’t allow for corrections or overdubs of additional instruments after the fact. Matassa described the control room as being “as big as my four fingers.”
- In 1947, singer Roy Brown recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight” — the song credited with popularizing the term “rockin'” — at J&M. Two years later, a 21-year-old Fats Domino would show up there to record “The Fat Man,” which some argue is the first true rock ‘n’ roll song.
- Other artists to record at J&M include Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Guitar Slim, Huey “Piano” Smith, Dr. John, Irma Thomas and Professor Longhair.
- It wasn’t just future rock stars who recorded at the studio. A classified ad taken out by Matassa in The Times-Picayune in December 1954 offered to let anyone record their own voice — “accompanist furnished” — for $4.
- When things were slow at the studio, Matassa would let an aspiring young musician named Allen Toussaint tinker on its grand piano. “That was the first grand piano that I touched,” Toussaint told The Times-Picayune in 2014.
- In the mid to late-1950s, Matassa moved his studio to 521 Gov. Nicholls St, which decades later gained recognition for its other famous inhabitants: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Matassa relocated once more to 748 Camp St. before retiring from recording in the 1980s, after which he worked — and held court — at his family’s grocery.
- More than 250 nationally charting singles and 21 gold records were recorded at J&M, according to The New York Times.
- The “J&M” in the studio’s name represented the initials of both Matassa’s father, John Matassa, as well as the elder Matassa’s business partner, Joe Mancuso.
- Months after his death in September 2014 at age 88, the Krewe of Orpheus paid tribute to Matassa’s contributions with a specially designed doubloon thrown during its 2015 parade. A hole was drilled through the middle of the doubloon, making it resemble an old-school vinyl record.
Matassa had a habit of downplaying his musical contributions, shifting credit instead to the performers who actually played the music on the recordings he oversaw. Still, there’s no denying the influence he and his little studio — primitive though it might have been in those early years — had on the American musical landscape. As the Times -Picayune wrote upon his death in 2014: “The sound created by Domino, producer Dave Bartholomew and Mr. Matassa at J&M Recording on North Rampart Street staked New Orleans’ claim as the birthplace not just of jazz, but of rock ‘n’ roll as well.