At the TapeOpCon this year our Keynote Interview will be New Orleans recording legend Cosimo Matassa. This is a man who should go down in the history books with as much acclaim as Sam Phillips, Bill Putnam, Tom Dowd, Phil Spector or any other pioneer of the recording arts.
Cosimo started J&M Recording Studio in 1945 at the age of 18, and recorded what many music historians consider to be the very first rock 'n' roll song ever recorded in 1947, "Good Rockin' Tonight" by Roy Brown. In 1949, he recorded Fats Domino singing "The Fat Man", and went on to work on many sides with him, like "Walkin' to New Orleans". He also recorded the Professor Longhair song "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" that same year. By 1953 he had worked with Ray Charles and recorded Joe Turner's "Honey Hush". By the end of that year he did some of the first recordings of Earl King, Lloyd Price, Huey Smith, and Bobby Marchan.
In 1955, Cosimo was blazing new sonic trails when he captured the immortal "Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard, continuing on to record "Long Tall Sally" and "Slippin' and Slidin'". In 1956 he had to move the studio after the police raided the upstairs neighbor for running an illegal book joint. He settled into the French Quarter on 525 Governor Nicholls Ave., and changed the name to Cosimo's. Here, in the New Orleans heat, thing kicked in with Little Richard tracking "Rip it Up", "Lucille" and "Good Golly Miss Molly". Many other hits, like "Sea Cruise" by Frankie Ford, and artists like Irma Thomas and Dr.John, came out of this fertile environment.
Soon Allen Toussaint joined the picture, producing hits for Minit Records and introduced the world to artists like Lee Dorsey ("Working in the Coal Mine") and Aaron Neville ("Tell it Like It Is"). After he closed the studio, Cosimo worked as a freelance engineer for Alan at his Sea- Saint Studio but eventually retired to help his sons run his father's original business, a market in the French Quarter. It was at this market that we found Cosimo and held an impromptu street interview while the bustle of New Orleans life carried on around us.
I hear one of your old studio spaces is a laundromat?
They've still got the space in the back, got some pictures on the wall. The city, on the 50th anniversary of Fats Domino recording, they put a plaque on the building.
What was your first recorder?
Machine? I started off on disc.
So if you made a mistake you started over?
Maybe yes, maybe no. I was doing two at a time so sometimes you could use the safety.
When you started going to tape machines?
I started on a one track. Ampex. They called it a portable — it took two men and a boy to move it. Two trunks.
What was your first multitrack machine?
Ampex. I forget the model number. 250? I went from two to three, three to four and four to eight — and that's as far as I got.
Did you have the Ampex 1" 8-track?
I didn't have the Ampex. I had one that was made over in Florida.
It'd be fascinating to get some of the recordings and say, "These were done on acetate..."
It would be hard for me to remember which was which to be honest with you! [laughs] Presto lathes came with cutter heads and they sucked. A friend of mine was an engineer on an Esso supertanker. He used to go to the North Sea. He bought three cutter heads in England — Grampions. The Grampions are moving iron type things, which means the low end, when you got near its limit it saturated and it'd give you low, third harmonic distortion. If you were very careful and just barely overloaded it, everything got fat.
Did you use any old Telefunken mics back in those days?
Yeah. In fact I had a very dear friend who was a member of a conservative Jewish congregation. You know there's kind of a contest between them, who's got the best cantor. Somebody heard, "This is the world's best microphone," so they bought one. Then people in the congregation said, "We don't think we ought to be using the German microphone." My friend said, "I'll take it. I know somebody who could use it." That was the original U-47.
Were you able to get any points on any of those record projects in the old days?
Rarely. Almost never. All for hire, you know. [laughs]
Being a union player or stuff...
Well, we did some non-union things too. We used to really piss the union off because we'd do a mixed session. Union guys and non-union guys. Actually I went outside — one of the locations I had was on Governor Nicholls Street here — we were doing a session late, we started after the guys did their gigs in the clubs. We started about two in the morning or some- thing like that. So about 3:30 I'm taking a break and I walk out- side and there's a business agent from the union writing license numbers down!
Back in the day they had the black union and the white union and you weren't supposed to mix those either.
You guys used to operate between the lines?
You see, unfortunately, in the early days especially, the union had the wrong attitude. They were policemen and what they needed to be was advocates. They weren't. Your first objective ought to be to help your guys make a living. Everything else comes after that.
What'd you have for a piano in the studio?
I had a good piano, a Baldwin. Middle size — seven footer. The first one I had was 6465 Style R — a really good piano. It's big enough that it talks out, and the low end sounds good, but it was small enough to fit in that little room I had. When I first started I was very limited in the number of inputs I had. What I would do is I would use one, either a 77B or a 44DX, and hang it over the soundboard try to find a place where everything was balanced.
Did you lift the lid up all the way?
Just on the tall stick. It depends on the player. Some guys have a strong left hand, some a strong right hand, some are not strong at all!
What was your first board?
The first thing was the three input mixer that came with my Presto disc cutter. So I started off with three microphones. Then I got a portable four mic mixer. It was a custom thing. This thing had four mics and a line input. So I used the three from the Presto into the line input. So then I could use those three, usually the drum kit, and then the line input was my submaster for the drums only.
Once you started doing 4-track were you bouncing stuff?
I started with 2-tracks. We would do the rhythm and the horns on two tracks, and then bounce that and add stuff to it going to the other 2-track. About a second bounce and you'd had it.
Yeah. By the time I got the 8-track, Tom Dowd would use the 8-track but the mix was all in the return. He had a guy at the 8-track keeping all the levels high, so if he had something that was soft it was up on the 8- track and you brought it down on the return. So that kept the noise down. Tom Dowd taught me that. It takes another guy 'cause if you don't watch you're gonna crash something.
When you got out of the business did you sell all your gear?
No. Once I went busted and they took all my stuff and sold it at a sale. I've still got a few old Urei equalizers. [Bill] Putnam taught me a few things too. He was in Chicago then.
His sons are making gear again.
I don't know if you ever had it, the gigantic Fairchild? That thing was good.
Fairchilds go for $30,000 now.
Good lord. And I used to cry because when you changed the output tubes you had to change all four. I used to cry about that because it was $100. That thing had so much current available it could drive the shortest transient in the world. It was great.
How did your records get heard back in the day?
There were jocks that were independent thinkers, they didn't have program directors and a consultant over in Peoria somewhere telling them what to play and when. They would try new things. We had one guy here who was really popular, he was a white guy who had a black guy format and note the copy for the thing. They wouldn't let the black guy on the air, right? So he created this character that the white guy did called Poppa Stoppa, and on Saturdays he'd play all new things. Eight to ten new, local records being played. Every week.
Did the labels send people down here to get "that sound"?
No, what they sent them down here was, 'cause somebody else had made a hit that made some money so they were gonna try to do that too. They didn't care what it sounded like. "The New Orleans Sound"? There's no such thing. It's the musicians, the atmosphere. To be perfectly honest, and I say it all the time, a lot of good musicians made me look good. Seriously. The best engineer in the world can't make a bad musician sound good. Nobody goes into the studio to make b-sides, right? They just sort of happen.
How were the musicians and their gear?
You had guys that didn't take care of their kits and stuff. The famous drummer from down here, Ed Blackwell, had a kit that looked like he got it from the Salvation Army. Some of the things were missing, and so on. But when he set it up you'd swear it was made in heaven. Because he knew what he was doing. He could hear and he knew what to do about it. One of the few things I really miss from the old days is skin heads.
I work with a drummer that uses them.
Really? Where does he find them? They're heartbreaking. They'll work you to death trying to keep them in tune. Put a cigarette lighter under it.
One of the things that I think sometimes guys fall over the edge on is they think they need to improve on the artist and they ought to do it the other way around. I always thought that you're supposed to be transparent. Catch what the artist is doing and preserve it. Every now and then I'll go to a session, somebody says come over, and one of the things that always astounds me with all the mixers today is a half-hour before the guys are finished setting up they're turning knobs on the console. I'd say, "Isn't that kinda strange you haven't even heard what they do and you're already doing something? Either you're compensating for a lousy console or you've got preconceived notions of what to do." I don't get it. That could be dangerous. What I used to do was listen to them, then go in the control room and try to make it sound like I heard out there.
How did you find out about new gear and techniques?
It was on the job training for me. Try to remember what you did. One of the things I think is careful choice of mics — what mic you put where. The AES was a lifesaver for me back when. This is like Siberia, there was nothing technical down here. I went to school to be a chemist. I didn't finish university because I was kind of precocious and I was in college and I was coming up to my second year and I was turning 18 the following April and World War II was going on and I was, "Well, I'm gonna get drafted" and I convinced my strict Italian father to let me drop out of school so I could have a couple of months hanging loose before I probably would've got drafted. But the war in Europe ended.
When did you stop recording?
Pretty much in the early eighties. I've done a couple of things after that. I did a couple of film jobs and a couple of commercials. Nothing of any consequence.
How did your father feel about you being a recording engineer?
Well, he always said, "Get out of that crazy business and come run this grocery store."
And here you are.
I quit working for myself and I'm working for them now!