The Sound of New Orleans:
Colin Davies talks to legendary Crescent City recording engineer Cosimo Matassa
Cosimo Matassa is considered by many as one of the true — if unsung — heroes of early rock ‘n’ roll. We can argue where it was in the South that rock ‘n’ roll was created, molded and developed, but we all agree that the city of New Orleans played a crucial role. And the incredible thing is that the majority of New Orleans rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock ‘n’ roll tracks recorded between the late ’40s and the mid-’60s came from the studios of Cosimo Matassa. Fats Domino, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis, Larry Williams, Professor Longhair, Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry, Ray Charles, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, Sam Cooke, Bobby Mitchell, Roy Brown, Earl King, Guitar Slim, Bobby Charles — the list goes on and on. They all recorded — in many cases their first sides (the earliest recording of Jerry Lee Lewis, in New Orleans in 1951, has recently came to light) — in Cosimo’s studios.
The weekend before Thanksgiving 2002, I visited Cosimo in the grocery store he owns in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and we talked in the small office above. He is an enormously friendly man, proud and yet modest about his achievements, and completely without ego and without any regrets. Plus he’s in incredibly good shape for a man of 76!
First question: is it pronounced ‘Cosimo’ or ‘Cozimo’?
Well actually by default people say ‘Cozmo’. It’s actually Italian, ‘Cozimo’, but nobody including me says that, so it’s ‘Cozmo’.
A lot of us believe that the greatest music ever produced in this country came out of your studios in the mid-’50s…
Well, as I say whenever I get the chance, a lot of good players and good performers made me look good. You’re very modest. No, no, no. You ‘ve got to give credit. A bricklayer’s one thing, but good bricks are something else.
First of all, can we get something clear? What exactly was your role? You wouldn’t really describe yourself as a producer, would you?
No, no. I was a recording engineer. And I got my two cents in on the other side of that — but always in an effort to be helpful.
So, for example, the musicians — let’s say Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew’s band — they would rent the studio by the hour?
Yes, and that included me.
But obviously your role changed later in the ’60s, when you had your own labels, Rex and Dover…
I did a few things then, because I thought there were some people around that were not having things done that needed to be done, and it was sort of something to do — kind of playful. It sounds funny, but it’s true.
So were you involved then as a producer?
If you want to call it that, yeah.
If we could talk about your recording studios. How big were they?
The J&M Music Shop [which he opened in 1945, at age 18, in the building at 838-840 North Rampart Street that had been acquired the previous year by J&M Amusements -CD] was about the size of this room, about 15 by 16, plus a little control room about the size of two telephone booths. That was a separate room, with a glass between them.
And a block of ice out the back with a fan blowing on it to keep you cool?
Oh no, that was later, at Governor Nicholls [Cosimo’s Studio at 523-525 Governor Nicholls Street, where he moved in 1956 -CD], where I had a large room but no air conditioning. Acoustically the J&M studio was very good. It was done by a very good architect who did a state-of-the-art facility, which is pretty much state-of-the-art today. There hasn’t been all that much new invented acoustically, because there’s nothing left. There’s two ways you keep outside noise from interfering. Either with mass — huge walls — or by decoupling one wall from another. You have a wall inside a wall and they don’t connect in any way so you don’t telegraph through things. You can put an ear on a rail and hear a train a mile away through connectivity, through the rail, and the same thing through a building.
How did you keep the sound of the instruments separate in that tiny room?
You couldn’t. One of the things I did when I first got into recording… We’re gonna back up a little bit here. My education was scientific. I was going to school to be a chemist until I figured out what a chemist was, and then I didn’t want to be a chemist. When I got into
recording, the first thing I did was join the Audio Engineering Society which is the professional group, and I researched the literature and I knew differential equations and the mathematics that describes physical things. So I studied microphones — the way they pick up sound from where and how, such as the ‘cardioid’ mic that has a heart-shaped type of pattern and the ‘figure of-eight’ that picks sound from the front and back but not the sides — and I learned to use those characteristics. And also because the room was small, even though you had what they call ‘spill’ — in other words the microphone for the saxophonist would pick up the guitarist — but the distance was so short that it didn’t create a problem, which it would have done in a bigger room.
I understand you were only using three microphones?
One on the piano with the vocal, and the horns playing into that mic leaning over the piano…
Yes, or near it.
…one on the drums and one for the bass and guitar…
Yes, and whatever was left over.
The drums weren’t too loud?
No, because a lot of the drums were in the other mics. You know, I only used a little omni-directional mic over the drums to give it presence and a little balance between the parts.
Also the reason the drums sounded that way was because they used animal hides for the
drum heads, and there is a difference in that sound from what you hear now with plastic
ones. I don’t know how else to explain it — a skin head is part of a living thing — and they sound different.
If we could talk a little about recording techniques. My understanding is that you didn’t start using tape until around the mid’ 50s…
I don’t remember the dates — you’ll have to remember them — but, yes, I started off recording direct to disc — which meant that things that are taken for granted today weren’t feasible then. For one thing, you had to play and record from beginning to end and you couldn’t intercut — take a good piece from Take 2 and put it in Take 3. What you got was what you got. Period.
And that was for the first ten years?
Yes, about that time.
In the original J&M Studio?
Before you moved to the Governor Nicholls studio, you’d already started using tape?
Recording on tape, yes. I’d originally gotten an Ampex, model 300. I had the portable version that was kind of a joke at the time because the thing was two trunks and it took three people to move it. But it was a portable, so I did some things on location too. I’d done Pete Fountain and AI Hirt and a couple of people like that in the clubs where they were playing. I recorded them on that machine which was single track. It was mono, which is what everything was then.
So once you started using the tape recorder, then you could edit?
Yes, intercut, splice it together…
But you couldn’t overdub?
Not at first. We had just the one tape machine and so there was no overdubbing, but some time later I got a two track Ampex, a 252 or something like that. The two track machine made it possible then to do, for instance, a mono basic rhythm track and then play that and put onto one of the tracks of the two track the first set of overdubs — which would probably be the vocals — and then go back and put horns or something like that on the second track of the two tracks. That was the most basic thing I was able to do.
So technically you weren’t really mixing, you were overdubbing…
Well, I was mixing too in the sense that the first mixer I got had only three inputs with three microphones — as we were saying earlier — and I got to four with a little trickery kind of thing. When I got the Ampex two track, the Ampex also had a four input mixer plus a line input, so I could play tape and mix mics going into the second generation. So it was a little more feasible then, but I was still limited very much in the number of mics I had.
When we were talking about you cutting straight to disc and how you couldn’t stop in the middle of a take; stories have often been told about how Fats Domino would occasionally stop in the middle and say something…
Like “How’s that going?” Yeah. But you know, that wasn’t bad, in the sense that the most important thing that everyone involved in this could do was to have people at ease and not be intimidated by the room, the mics and all that. So if someone felt at ease he could say, “How was that?” It sounds terrible at first that we ruined a good take, but its tells you he didn’t feel constricted or stressed.
They were paying by the hour so presumably they had rehearsed before they came in, and yet a lot of the recordings sound so spontaneous…
A lot of them were, yes. Well, in Fats’ case, Dave Bartholomew or Fats and Dave together did a lot of original material, and what would happen was… Let’s say it’s one that Dave did. Dave would bring in a song he had done and we did what we called ‘head’ arrangements, which meant that the first thing that would happen was that Dave would teach the song to Fats. Now there’s a phenomenon, not just with Fats but especially with Fats — he would noodle along with the song and try and get the feel of it…do the verses and the changes and things like that, and somewhere along the way you would just hear it change.
Some people say that Fats simplified the songs…
It wasn’t that he simplified them, he brought them into himself. It was not his material he was doing. He got the material and now he was doing Fats’ version of the material. Yeah, that is simple. His delivery is not complicated, it’s powerful but not complicated, and you could hear it. You almost had an epiphany kind of thing (laughs).
I presume Dave Bartholomew was pretty much in charge…
Not “pretty much”. Absolutely. Let me say this. First of all, Dave was an experienced, long-time bandleader from back when big bands were economically possible. So Dave was an in charge kind of person from the beginning, and credit Dave for maintaining Fats’ focus and follow his progress ’cause Fats tended to kind of noodle around and not concentrate terribly on what was at hand, which was making a record! Dave, more than anything, more than anybody, made it possible for Fats to be Fats, because he allowed him to be himself and yet he kept him focused and headed down the road to a finished product. Dave was in charge. He was an in-charge, take-charge kind of guy, and thank God for that because without him there wouldn’t have been as many — or any — Fats hits.
How would you rate his overall role in New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues?
If I had to pick one person who was the most important, it would be him.
Apart from yourself…
No, no, it would be him. Because first of all, he was a great musician, and back then he was a powerful trumpet player … in fact, I saw him play just last year and there was still some of that power — at 80 years old! So he’s a marvelously strong person, both physically and mentally.
So you worked well with him…
Oh, I consider him my best friend.
I’d like to talk about some of the other musicians you recorded, such as sax player Lee Allen and drummer Earl Palmer. In his book, Palmer refers to you as being a genius...
(Laughing) Well, what happened…and again a lot of the credit for this goes to Dave… He came up with a group who were good players, they took direction — although not always easily — and they were contributors. Earl Palmer, for instance, it was astounding the way someone like Earl could come up with the little things that made a difference. You know, all the time it was, “Try this” or “How about this?” It wasn’t, “Look what I did”. It was the same with Frank Fields, Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Herb Hardesty — they literally pooled what they had together. It was such a nice thing.
And you had a great relationship with them…
All of them. Like I said, we were friends first and co-workers second.
Earl Palmer said sometimes they smoked weed and you used to tell them to stop it…
(Laughing) Well, you know … I never liked that, but I had to understand it and so I accommodated it. I cannot say I approved it, and whenever I’d get the chance I’d say something about it. I think most of those guys would have been better without it, but who knows?
Of course, one of the biggest musicians you recorded was Little Richard. Can you tell me about working in the studio with him? Bumps Blackwell was the producer …
Yes, the A&R man as they called them in those days. Bumps Blackwell — absolutely.
And Art Rupe…
Art Rupe was a fine guy — he gave opportunities for things to some of us, including me, but I think when he was around me he was more of an irritant. We were better off most of the time he wasn’t around.
Now there’s clearly a big difference between the first Little Richard recordings and ‘Tutti Frutti’ when things really…
Came together, yeah. I think the guys and Richard became more…they came to know each other better. Like a football team — they play together a couple of games and they’re better. That’s not because they’re better, but because they’ve played together — and I think that happened with Richard.
How would you compare a Richard recording session with a Fats session?
Again, it was almost always ‘head’ arrangements right in the studio, and even selecting the songs right in the studio — like, “We’ll do this”, “No, try this one” — that kind of thing. In any event I think Richard is a more uptight performer Not uptight in the sense of being stressed but in being intense about something. Fats is more laid back, fun . Richard had a lot of personal drive. In fact let me say this to sort of explain the way he drove things, and please don’t misunderstand where I’m coming from, but it’s that he’s gay, and I described him as having a ‘Queen of the May’ complex. He had to be the best, so when Bumps would say, “We got a good one”, Richard would say, “No, let’s do one more, we can do it better”. You know, there are not many guys who do five, six, eight, ten takes, and then if the producer says “That’s okay”, say, “No, I could do better”. Most of them were damn glad to get on to the next song. In fact, the nickname for Art Rupe was ‘Pappy’ and the common phrase was “One more for Pappy”, and after Bumps got through with saying “One more for Pappy”, Richard would say, “One more for Pappy.” (Laughs)
And since they were paying for the studio by the hour it was costing them more…
Yes, but no-one was getting paid that much. (Laughs)
Did Richard ever storm out? Was he tempestuous?
Oh no, not in that sense. Not at all. He was friendly. In fact, he was too friendly. I liked him. He’s one of those people who can be cocky, but not irritating, you know what I mean? You see him on a show — “I invented rock ‘n’ roll” — and he’s okay about it; he’s not being nasty about it.
Do you keep in touch with him or any of the other guys?
I don’t keep up a steady thing. I see Earl Palmer regularly when he comes to town and I see Dave Bartholomew.
It’s now known that Jerry Lee Lewis made his first recording here...
Yeah, neither of us knew where we were going to be later.
Do you remember that?
I don’t remember in the sense of remembering him coming in, but I remember it as part of what was going on in those days. He was like 14 or 15. Young.
You recorded Sam Cooke too…
Well, Sam had done some stuff with The Soul Stirrers. Marvelous. Goodness, that sucker sang like an angel. I don’t remember the ones he did with me. Then he went to LA and made a huge hit with ‘You Send Me’. A lot of the LA musicians had worked with me and then moved on.
You cut Lloyd Price’s ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ and many people consider that as being the first rock ‘n’ roll record…
You could say that, but I’d go back further than that to … (Pause)
‘The Fat Man’?
No … (pause)
‘Roy Brown’s ‘Good Rocking Tonight’? — which you recorded…
Yes, that one had the first sense of that real melding of big band, small rhythm combo, blues, gospel … it had some of all of that. It was a real ‘gumbo’ if you want to use a New Orleans word. (Laughs) You can hear it all on that. So if you want to say that was the first…
But ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ was a magnificent record…
Yes. Incidentally, Dave and I did that as independent producers. In other words we said, “This guy’s good. No one else is recording him. Let’s make a record with him.” And we sold it to Art.
And it was Fats Domino on piano with the usual band?
Yes, the usual characters.
Lloyd didn’t stay in New Orleans very long, did he?
Well, first Lloyd and a guy [Harold Logan] became partners and he moved to Washington, D.C., and they did some good things there. He’s a smart guy and he knew what his future was and he took good care of it. He kept doing really good things. A lot of people — and he’s one — have a sense of a good tune and he did some good tunes.
Larry Williams recorded with you also…
A lot. Well, not a lot — some. He was in that same groove — he moved on to the West Coast. He was good and he had some of the things, a little bit of what Richard does — that kind of stuff. He was a good performer.
Some of my own favourite tracks you cut were with Huey ‘Piano’ Smith. I believe he’s in Baton Rouge these days?
Well, he’s kind of reclusive. I’ve only seen him once recently — he was on a blues society thing that has its headquarters in Baton Rouge. He was on stage and I got to speak to him — that was about a year ago. He’s still…it’s like he’s afraid of what people are going to do to him. And that’s well founded, on the basis of what’s happened to him in his life.
Those tracks — especially the ones with Bobby Marchan — are real fun.
They were having fun, you can hear it. I don’t know if you know this, but when Wurlitzer made the first electric piano it was a terrible instrument as far as being a piano’s concerned. But Huey could make it walk. He could drive that little thing and some of his earlier stuff is on that little Wurlitzer electric piano, and you can hear Huey just drive. He was good — he worked all around town.
I guess you worked a lot with Johnny Vincent of Ace Records too…
Yeah. I did a bunch of stuff with him. He was a good man, but he had some shortcomings. We won’t go into that.
One of the people whose reputation continues to grow and grow is Professor Longhair – another who you recorded. They say he kicked the piano repeatedly…
What it was, he was used to playing on an upright and he could hold his heel and rotate on his heel, and with the inside of his foot he’d tap — sort of to keep rhythm if you will — on the bottom of the upright piano. Well in the studio it was a grand piano and he had nothing to kick, so we got a board and some clamps and gave him something to kick. (Laughs) But, again, that’s part of what I tried to say about making people feel okay, relaxed and at home…and not conscious that “this is a recording”. He had an unfortunate lack of drive about things. He didn’t push himself or his situation. If he had had a different personality, he might have left a tremendous mark on our music. As it is, he’s significant, but his output was so limited if you think about it. You can count it almost on one hand, and that’s sad because he was just a natural performer.
What are your memories of Bobby Charles?
Very creative, and he could imitate Fats pretty good you know! He had the style down. He knew what he was doing. A good person and a creative person. You sense that when you talk to him there’s something special there, he’s one of those special people.
Have you seen him recently?
No, in fact I’ve heard that he’s not well and I’ve been trying to find his number so I could call him. I would love to hear how he’s doing ’cause he’s a nice guy. [The next day, I visited Clarence Henry, who gave me Bobby’s number, which I passed on to Cosimo -CD]
How did he get on with the black musicians? I mean, with him being a white kid — that wasn’t an issue?
Well you know, the kids that were into music down here heard a lot of black music and — well, with zydeco it’s obvious — but a lot of people don’t understand that a lot ‘of the Cajun music has kind of a little sidebar that’s black. It’s a sort of ‘country black’, and so it was no problem for the white kids here to jump at doing what we now call rhythm n blues.
He wrote a lot of great songs — some of them for Clarence Henry…
Well, he also has a health problem. [When I met him the next day, he seemed in very good spirits and told me he was still performing occasionally -CD] In fact, a few years back Clarence and I, when they opened the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame — in Cleveland, of all places! — we got invited and travelled up together. He’s another one of those people with a style that’s unique. People may imitate him, but he doesn’t imitate anybody. He’s him and that’s a marvelous talent.
Another white guy you recorded was Jimmy Clanton…
I was his manager and producer, so I wound up out on the road for two tours with him. In fact, Red Tyler and I were roommates on one tour.
Another personal favourite of mine who maybe didn’t get the success he deserved was Smiley Lewis…
Well, what happened with Smiley was he was a victim of the times. If I may, what I’m saying is back then, if we did a record with a black guy that was fairly good, some white artist would cover it and they would get the airplay across the country because it wasn’t just the South that was segregated — the North and the West were too, but in a different way. They were separate. So white artists … you know the one I think of most, the sucker with the white buck shoes…
Pat Boone? He’s not a favourite with the readers of the magazine this interview is being done for …
I can imagine so. He’s not mine either. I hate white buck shoes. But he could do that kind of ‘vanilla’ — and that’s a good word — version of a black hit and get airplay. And Smiley suffered from that. Smiley kept going, but he never really got a break.
Was he good to work with in the studio?
Excellent. I’d like to add a little sidebar here. There is a difference between a performer and an entertainer. Some people are performers but they’re not really entertainers. Smiley was a good performer and a great entertainer, and that means that just naturally when you’re around them you have fun. One other I like to use as an example is Irma Thomas. All Irma has to do is walk on stage and the crowd ‘s having fun already.
She recorded at your studio during a very creative period in the early ’60s, along with people like Benny Spellman, Chris Kenner and Ernie K-Doe — all produced by Allen Toussaint...
Yes, Allen was the arranger, the producer and the writer. He wrote most of the songs and was extremely talented. I have a saying about Allen: if you give him a feather and a wishbone, he’ll make a chicken for you. What I mean by that is Allen had a penchant for taking an average singer, you could say an ordinary singer, and write material and then arrange it with that singer in mind and make a great record. It’s a God-given talent he’s got, and he did it over and over. He picked some great talent and he had some people who were borderline as performers but they were entertainers. He just wrapped them in something that made them better.
Who are the artists you enjoyed working with the most?
Oh, I never thought on that plane — I don’t think that way. We were all doing what we did. As the joke goes, it was grits and rent…it was a case of paying for the groceries and the house rent. We were all trying to make a living among other things, and in the process of course, as I say, and I’m sincere about it, some really good people made me look good (laughs).
Do you still have any old tapes or acetates lying around?
No. In fact, in the middle ’60s I went busted in the studio on Camp Street [his third studio, Jazz City Studio at 748 Camp Street, where he moved in 1965 -CD] and one of my creditors came in and literally cleaned the place out — hauled off all the old tapes, discs…
It went to a junk pile somewhere in Nashville as far as I know. It’s sad, but…well…
I must mention the fact that since we’ve been talking, various people have been popping their heads in and asking about this and that connected with your studio days...
Oh yes, they find me — for some reason! (laughs) People from Germany, France, Japan, and I’m pleased, but I don’t make a thing of it. And I’m pleased with what, you’re doing. I’m glad and I try to cooperate.
On my radio show I talk about you and play this music every week. Cosimo Matassa, it really has been a tremendous honour to meet you.
I’m just so pleased you think enough of my work to come and find me.