The cramped New Orleans space that once housed the original J&M Studio later became a laundromat. When owner Cosimo Matassa moved his studio to other locations around the French Quarter, he never bothered to finish the build-out. Wall studs were left exposed and the floors were a tangle of cables and tape, recalls Allen Toussaint.
Matassa, just announced as a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's class of 2012, "didn't care about the glaze," Toussaint tells Rolling Stone. "He cared about the donut itself."
Beginning in the mid-Forties, Matassa ran the modest recording studio that has often been called the original home of rock & roll. Fats Domino and Little Richard made their names on J&M sessions. Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis cut some of their earliest records there, and future New Orleans mainstays like Toussaint and Dr. John found their first gigs at J&M as teenagers.
Organizing all this creative chaos was Matassa, the son of a French Quarter grocer who parlayed the family's side business – a jukebox route – into a studio and record store. Dr. John says it was Matassa's hospitality, his sense of humor and his sure hand with primitive recording technologies that made J&M a part of music history.
"I love Cos," Dr. John says. "He's one of my true heroes."
In the endless debate about what might have been the first true rock & roll record, J&M can claim at least two: Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" (1947) and Domino's "The Fat Man" (1949). One of Matassa's closest friends, bandleader and arranger Dave Bartholomew (another Hall of Famer), ran the studio band, known as "the Clique," years before there was a house band at Stax or Motown.
For Matassa, who is 85 and suffering from memory loss after a series of strokes, the business was a neighborhood service, much like the family market's stock of fresh fruits and muffaletta sandwiches.
"That's one way to put it," he said in a brief phone conversation last week, after learning of his induction. But if Matassa always treated his role as a humble facilitator – "nobody had any ego trips or weird stuff" at J&M, says Dr. John – New Orleanians have long argued that Matassa should be called the "Godfather of Rock & Roll" for his contributions.
The rawness of the studio was key, says Toussaint, who led sessions at J&M and its successor, Cosimo Recording Studio, on many of New Orleans' most durable songs – "Mother-in-Law," "I Like It Like That," "Ooh Poo Pah Doo."
Typical sessions were three hours to get four songs, explains Toussaint. "Split" sessions featured the band cutting two songs apiece with two vocalists. For Jessie Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," the group hastily recorded two versions, one vocal, one instrumental. Then they brought in a string section for an elaborate production with another artist.
"We felt good about it," says Toussaint. "That record sold zero, but 'Ooh Poo Pah Doo,' as ragged as it seemed, was the hit. That was an interesting lesson to learn."
Matassa's son, John, who still runs the family market with his brother, says the secret to his father's success as an engineer was no secret at all: "He just had a good ear."
The family lost huge boxes full of old tapes when their warehouse was damaged in Hurricane Katrina, he says: "Everything got destroyed. It was pallets of stuff. Unbelievable," John Matassa says.
For Dr. John, recognition for Matassa might be late, but it's also right on time. "It's always better to get recognition while you're breathing," says the musician also known as Mac Rebennack, himself a 2011 Rock Hall inductee. "Cos was one of the cats, one of the musicians. He fit right into the whole thing."
Matassa had his last real successes in the Sixties with artists like Lee Dorsey and Aaron Neville. He retired from the music business in the Eighties. In 1999, J&M was designated a historic landmark.
The studios Matassa built provided "a perfect comfort zone" for the creation of the New Orleans sound, says Toussaint, Rock Hall class of 1998. Matassa, he says, is "quiet royalty."
"He was a window to the world for us."
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