New Orleans helped shape Little Richard’s music and Rock n’ Roll

“Little” Richard Penniman was only 22 when he recorded “Tutti Frutti” in September 1955 but he was already on his third record label, having a hard time finding the right support for his energetic and flamboyant performance style. He died last week at 87. You’ll hear his music and a bit about how New Orleans let his freak flag fly in this week’s show. Get it started and then read on.

“Little” Richard Penniman

Little Richard began his professional career in his teens when he performed with a travelling show. However, he would struggle with the tension between his religious leanings and his sexual orientation through most of his professional career. But when Specialty Records bought out his contract and sent him to New Orleans, he found an accepting work environment that allowed him to be more true to himself. The J&M Studio run by Cosimo Matassa had become a bit of a hit factory, largely as a result of the residency of Fats Domino. With the help of bandleader Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, a native of Seattle, Little Richard found the musical backing that could match his frenetic style.

When Tutti Frutti took off, it was quickly followed by “Long Tall Sally” which went to number one on the R&B chart. You’ll hear that song along with two others from that era. I’ll also play another set featuring music Little Richard made popular, including a demo tape of Good Golly Miss Molly. All the songs I play were recorded in New Orleans.

Andrew Duhon

But as with most of my shows, I don’t stick to one genre for long. After the Little Richard sets, we make a sharp turn into the soulful songwriting and singing of Andrew Duhon with a greeting by him sequestered in his New Orleans home. Duhon has toured the Northwest including Olympia and when you hear his three-song set, you’ll hope he comes back real soon.

The second half of the show features funk, blues, Latin, Cajun, swing and jazz. So just sit back and soak it up. What else do you need to do?

If you have a story of New Orleans or would like to share with me your love for the city and its music, let me know. I’d like to get your voice on my show. You’ll hear an example of what I’m talking about near the end of the first hour of the show. Contact me through my Facebook page and we’ll work it out.

Henry Gray’s life spans the history of Chicago Blues

This week’s show provides a brief glimpse into the days of early rock n’ roll recording and honors one of the key architects of the Chicago blues sound. And that’s just the first hour. You got some listening to do. Turn it on before you read on!

The life of Henry Gray, who died last week at 95, spans the history of urban Chicago blues as African Americans migrated from the south to escape racism and poverty following the end of World War 2. And like the previous migration following World War 1, music came with them. Except instead of jazz, it was the blues led by Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and Chess records. In the middle all this was a rural Louisiana piano player who help define Chicago blues.

But that was after the war when he had served in the South Pacific. Before, in a small town outside Baton Rouge called Alsen, Gray played the usual songbook expected of a Baptist family. But somehow, he was encouraged to other styles of play and by the time he was 16, he was entertaining audiences in local clubs. A habit that stayed with him throughout his life. Returning back to Louisiana to care for his mom and the family business, he was an annual favorite at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. His last appearance was 2018.

This show also celebrates the birth anniversaries of Roy Montrell and Clarence Garlow. Montrell played guitar in the Fats Domino touring band for 17 years, taught Mac Rebennak (Dr. John) how to play the guitar and co-wrote and sang “(Everytime I hear) That Mellow Saxophone.”Garlow is known for “Bon Ton Roulay” and having played with Clifton Chenier in the early years of Zydeco. Both were in the Cosimo Matassa studio in the 50’s recording early rock n’ roll songs such as “Heebie Jeebies.”

What else can I tell you about this show? There’s a four-song set on fishing and two songs by Helen Gillet who will be performing in Olympia next week. And much more. Just keep listening and consider subscribing. Cheers.

Featuring the Not So Famous and Almost Forgotten

By definition, my show of New Orleans music features a number of musicians that are not well known outside of the city or at least outside the world collective of New Orleans music lovers. But today, I make a particular point to reach into the dusty edges of my music collection. Get it started by clicking the sideways arrow in the next box and then read on.

Today’s show starts with Sam Price and his True Believers — a group that regularly plays along the Gulf Coast but isn’t well known in the Northwest where my show airs. He “has soul in his dancing shoes. . . dancing right where I want to be.”

Slim Saunders was part of the Cosimo Matassa’s studio scene but rarely sang lead. One exception is “Let’s Have Some Fun” with the usual strong J&M studio musician line up — this time Sugar Boy Crawford, Snooks Eaglin, Frank Fields and Edgar Myles. Martha Carter kept Irma Thomas company as the only female artists on the Ric and Ron Labels. She sings “I Don’t Talk Too Much.” Wallace Johnson finishes the first fll set.

Allen Toussaint showed great faith in Willie Harper, helping produce a dozen sides through his studio. None of his songs really caught fire but I like “Walk Ya Out of My Life.” Betty Harris sings “What I’d Do Wrong” and Ted Graham’s Kings of Funk finishes that set.

The show continues with a set of jazz and a set of funk and soul before I spin some cajun and country. One of the bands featured is a band that grew out of Tulane University called Smilin’ Myron. While no longer active, they had an active live performance career as an opening act during 1990’s. Stay on later in the show to hear “Astral Project.”

I hope you enjoy today’s show. Please consider subscribing and you will get a notice of when a new show is available. Cheers.

Bartholomew shaped the sound that became rock and roll

With this week’s show, I try to capture in music the place in rock and roll history of Dave Bartholomew, who passed away recently. You can get the show started now and then read on.

Born on Christmas Eve in 1918, Dave Bartholomew was already a bandleader by the time he entered the Army during World War II. As a member of the 196th Army Ground Forces Band, he gained experience in writing and arranging music. By the end of the 40’s with the war over and with folks ready to dance, he led one of the hottest bands in New Orleans becoming part of the evolution of swing into R&B.

Fats Domino (left) and Dave Bartholomew generated a mountain of hits, all recorded from studios run by Cosimo Matassa.

The pivotal year for him was 1950 when he released his first big hit “Country Boy “(which starts the first full set of the show) and he met, recruited into the studio and recorded Fats Domino, scoring a big hit right out of the box with “The Fat Man” (also featured in the first set). His 14-year work relationship with Domino became one of the most celebrated collaborations in rock and roll. Bartholomew wrote and co-wrote many of Domino’s songs, arranged the horns, performed on his records and basically managed the musicians both in the studio and on tour.

During this time, he worked with many other New Orleans artists through his relationship with Lew Chudd and Imperial Records. One of of these talents was Smiley Lewis who you’ll hear singing the original recording of “Blue Monday.” Other artists were Pee Wee Crayton, Shirley and Lee, Snooks Eaglin and Lloyd Price (for Specialty Records). You’ll hear them all performing songs written or arranged by Bartholomew.

A fine musician (trumpet) and singer, Bartholomew was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame as a non-performer in 1991 — largely because of his deep involvement with Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studio in New Orleans and, according to his Hall of Fame bio, his ability to shape “the rhythmic orientation of that city into a sound everyone would come to know and love as rock and roll.”

I finish out my Bartholomew segment with covers of Bartholomew/Domino songs by Galactic, George Porter Jr., the Roamin’ Jasmine and Allen Toussaint. Federal streaming rules limit how many songs I can play of one artists so I didn’t play “My Ding-a-Ling” a Bartholomew song made famous by Chuck Berry. In prepping for the show, I noticed a fairly significant difference between Berry’s version and Bartholomew’s. While Berry caught some controversy over the suggestive lyrics of his version, he probably would have gotten in even more trouble had he used the lyrics sung by Bartholomew in the original recording.

Bartholomew’s family carries on the tradition of music making. Here is an OffBeat Magazine article that tells you more.

The rest of the show focuses on the music of Louisiana acts that will be performing in the Northwest this summer. I hope you have the chance to see one of these artists live. Here’s the schedule. Thanks for tuning in.

With one hand, New Orleans piano player let the good times roll

This week’s show is about the one-handed piano player you have likely heard but not heard of. Edward Frank played on scores of R&B hits created in the Cosimo Matassa cauldron in the 50’s and early 60’s. But there’s more to the story so go ahead and get this week’s show started, kicked off by BeauSoleil’s “Bon Temps Rouler.”

EDWARD FRANK
Edward Frank on piano.

This show celebrates Edward Frank’s birth anniversary. He was born June 14, 1932  and died in February 1997.  Despite his early R&B history, he spent his later years playing more contemporary jazz at venues such as the Palm Court Cafe and Preservation Hall. He was a talented horn arranger and keyboardist, involved with  Dr. John’s “Goin’ Back to New Orleans,” the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s”Jelly,” Snooks Eaglin’s “Soul’s Edge,” Tommy Ridgley’s “Since the Blues Began”and Chuck Carbo’s  “Drawers Trouble” and “The Barber’s Blues.”

Frank was born and attended high school in New Orleans. Except for a stint at college and some time in Houston working Bobby Blue Bland, he mostly made his home in New Orleans.  He also played in Europe with Lillian Boutte.  His performances were made more remarkable because of a disability that rendered his left arm paralyzed. This show features Frank playing piano on songs by Lloyd Price, Bobby Charles and Shirley and Lee (backing them up on their hit, “Let the Good Times Roll.”)

But first you’ll be treated to a set that includes Carlo Ditta’s “Tell It Like It Is,” the New Orleans Jazz Vipers’ “Swing that Music” and Professor Longhair recorded live in Chicago.

Stay with the show after the Edward Frank set because Davis Rogan, another New Orleans piano player, calls into the show to talk about how he was given a valuable life lesson by Ed Frank after losing a spot in Kermit Ruffin’s band.  This show also has songs by Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Hot 8 Brass Band (doing a long cover of “Sexual Healing”), Chocolate Milk, Corey Henry, Big Sam’s Funky Nation and a new song by Gal Holiday and her Honky Tonk Revue.

Thanks for listening and consider clicking the tab on the upper right to subscribe.

Dr. John turns 75

Dr. John turns 75 this Saturday (November 21, 2015).  Still active as a performer (nine shows last month) and recording artist (releasing Ske-Dat-De-Dat last year), Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack’s career goes back to the late 1950’s when as a guitarist he worked with Earl King, James Booker, Professor Longhair and other denizens of the J& M studio.

Like Earl Palmer who laid down the beats to the New Orleans R&B sound before migrating to Los Angeles to become part of the fabled “Wrecking Crew,”  Rebennak was a well regarded studio musician both in New Orleans (before having to leave the state) and California.

However, unlike Palmer, Rebennak stepped out in front of a band when he created the spiritually-infused persona, Dr.  John Creaux the Night Tripper, based on a New Orleans hoodoo practitioner.  This new character debuted on the “Gris Gris” album released in 1968.nite tripper

To hear Harold Battiste tell the story, the whole thing was just a lark. Another New Orleans musician who migrated to California, Battiste was a record producer and Sonny and Cher’s musical director in the 60’s. He approached Rebennak who had played on tour with Sonny and Cher to see if he had any concepts for a new album.

“Mac told me that he had been reading up on this character called Dr. John from the New Orleans voodoo tradition and wanted to work something around that.”  Actually, the character was a “hoodoo” practitioner which I understand is different than voodoo — kind of like a competitive alternative to voodoo.

“This was not to be a proper production with music arrangements and everything by the numbers. We would have to create a vibe in the studio where the spirit led the way,” wrote Battiste in his autobiography “Unfinished Blues: Memoirs of a New Orleans Music Man.”

Rebennak had created the concept for singer Ronnie Barron but according to Battiste, Barron’s agent nixed it. So Mac took the role. Battiste wrote that he envisioned the “the whole concept as a tongue-in-cheek thing.”

The album included a cast of New Orleans musicians working in southern California such as John Boudreaux, Ronnie Barron on keyboards, Jessie Hill and Shirley Goodman.

dr.john“The studio was like a Mardi Gras reunion, everybody laughing and talking, telling stories all at the same time. But once we got settled, the vibe was there and the music just flowed.”

For the album cover, Mac needed an outfit and Battiste arranged for Cher’s seamstress to arrange “odd pieces of animal skins tacked onto colorful clothes. She made him a snakeskin crown, and he found various trinkets and accessories to validate his voodoo status.”

The album’s release was delayed by about a year while record company executives tried to figure out what to do with it. But it received strong reviews upon release, creating a new problem. Now Mac really had to become Dr. John and perform as him.

His first live performance as Dr. John was at the Filmore West with Thelonious Monk.  That’s right! Mac and Monk.  Almost three dozen albums later, “Dr. John” (Mac Rebennak) is still going strong.

You can catch Dr. John’s music and much more in my next show (recorded here).

Dew Drop Inn played key role in New Orleans R&B era

Perhaps its a stretch to compare the Dew Drop Inn to Congo Square. But I see similarities between the two. (You can listen to the show while reading this post)

Just as Congo Square served as a gathering place for African American commerce and cultural exchange up through the mid-19th Century, the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans provided a safe and comfortable place for New Orleans musicians of the mid-20th Century to gather, support each other and play music.

Through the 40's til Hurricane Katrina, the Dew Drop Inn was an
Located in New Orleans Central City neighborhood, the Dew Drop became a second home for musicians.

One served as the genesis for Jazz and the other was an incubator for New Orleans R&B and early rock and roll. The Dew Drop Inn was not just a nightclub and bar, it was a vital regional center for African Americans, particularly musicians, at a time when the South and New Orleans enforced apartheid.

I’m not sure if those thoughts initially entered Frank Painia’s head when he decided to expand his barbershop on LaSalle Street to include a restaurant and bar. Most likely, he just saw a business opportunity across the street from where one of the largest housing projects in New Orleans was being built (the Magnolia Projects). By expanding his business, he provided employment for his brothers and eventually other relatives. He christened it the Dew Drop Inn in 1939.

With America mobilizing for the war effort, Painia added a hotel next door so African Americans on the move would have a place to stay when visiting or passing through New Orleans. The combination of barbershop, restaurant, lounge and hotel made the Dew Drop Inn a convenient stop for travelers.

But it was Painia’s venture into booking performers that would put the Dew Drop solidly into music history. He started by producing shows at a nearby boxing arena and high school auditorium. Since he had the Dew Drop, he could house and feed the touring musicians, who in turn would jam in the lounge after the official performance. It wasn’t long though before he started booking local acts to perform at the Dew Drop.

Then in 1945, just in time to entertain returning soldiers and their dates, Painia built the “Groove Room.” Located behind the Dew Drop, this two-story music and dance hall with a balcony and elevated band stage established an upscale ambiance with top-flight performers of the day, including Billie Holiday, Big Joe Turner, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Amos Milburn. Later Ray Charles, James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Bobby “Blue” Bland would grace the stage. Many homegrown performers including Earl King, Huey “Piano” Smith, and Allen Toussaint launched their careers from the Dew Drop.

The Dew Drop was home for many musicians, whether passing through or getting their act together. It was a 24-hour operation where musicians could eat, meet, clean up with a haircut, shoeshine and shower, and plan their next step. They would play for white audiences downtown then head back to the Dew Drop and jam with the house band or whoever was performing until daylight.

A dance contest for female impersonators at the Dew Drop Inn with Bobby Marchan  on stage. Ralston Crawford Collection,William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University
A dance contest for female impersonators at the Dew Drop Inn with Bobby Marchan on stage. Ralston Crawford Collection,William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University

The nightclub show included an emcee, comedians, magicians, dancers and, of course, the bands. It was not uncommon for the emcee or some of the dancers to be female impersonators (to use the term of that day). Bobby Marchan, who would sing with Huey Smith and the Clowns, got his start in New Orleans as part of a drag show called the Powder Box Revue.

Most New Orleans musicians of that period have stories about the Dew Drop. Grandpa Elliot Small of Playing for Change remembers watching his uncle play the harmonica there. Deacon John tells of how he broke into the recording business when he was approached by Allen Toussaint while playing guitar at the Dew Drop. “My head just popped open at the opportunity . .  .the very next day we were in Cosimo’s studio recording with the great Ernie K-Doe. “

But my favorite story is how Richard Penniman got his mojo at the Dew Drop Inn. Things weren’t popping in J&M studio that September day in 1955. Producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, a native of Seattle, called for a break and took his young protege for a drink. It was a slow day at the Dew Drop until Richard discovered the upright piano in the corner and banged out a tune so bawdy that Blackwell had to hire a writer to clean up the lyrics. Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti was a crossover hit that propelled him to national fame.

While the Dew Drop Inn was established, owned and frequented by African Americans, white patrons were allowed in. But this meant that Painia was arrested at times when police raided his business and charged him with  “racial mixing.” Eventually, he successfully sued the city, establishing the right for businesses to serve any customer they wanted.

The Dew Drop today is shuttered today but there's hope it can once again entertain people.
The Dew Drop today is shuttered today but there’s hope it can once again entertain people.

By the end of the 60’s, changing musical trends, desegregation and Painia’s declining health brought an end to Dew Drop Inn’s musical performances. The business carried on mostly as a hotel until Hurricane Katrina caused so much damage, it could not reopen.

The building still stands in its Central City neighborhood but is shuttered. Yet, Painia’s grandson, Kenneth Jackson carries a long-held torch that the Dew Drop will once again serve as a social and music hub for the community.

I’ll have that story in next week’s post (available now). Here’s the podcast of the show featuring  musicians who played at the Dew Drop Inn and we’ll hear in Mr. Jackson’s own words about the Dew Drop’s glory days.

Music and history carry on despite rain during French Quarter Festival

In New Orleans, the show must go on unless you can’t keep the musicians dry or if lightning threatens the audience. Over the course of the 2015 French Quarter Festival in New Orleans, we had a good bit of rain and a few lightning bolts.

So periodically, stages have been closed, including Tricia Boutte’s show right as she was beginning. Bummer!

A hard rain on Friday pushed crowds under cover. Saturday and Sunday also had rained out venues at times.
A hard rain on Friday pushed crowds under cover. Saturday and Sunday also had rained out venues at times.

The highlight for me today was indoors though when Allen Toussaint and Deacon John sat down with author John Broven. The one-hour program started with Toussaint going right to the Steinway and banging out his hit originally done by Irma Thomas, “It’s Raining.” This time, Deacon John sang it, with a few appropriate ad libs.

The stated purpose of the program was to reminisce about Cosimo Matassa and the heyday of New Orleans R&B and early Rock n’ Roll–a period of time that launched the careers of both Allen Toussaint and Deacon John. More on Mr. Toussaint and more on Mr. Matassa.

Allen Toussaint (piano) played
Allen Toussaint (piano) played “It’s Raining” and Deacon John sang at the French Quarter Festival Conversations on Louisiana Music.

Of Cosimo and his studio, Toussaint said “It was our doorway and window to the world . . .He and Dave Bartholomew put us on the map. . .He (Cosimo) saw the big picture long before we did cause we were just having fun. “

Deacon John described getting discovered by Toussaint at the Dew Drop Inn one night and the next day going into Matassa’s studio to help Ernie K-Doe record “There’s a will, there’s a way.”

As I mentioned in my previous post, I won’t be hosting this Monday’s show. Anch of Sundrenched will handle affairs and I plan to call in during the show. Consider subscribing to this blog so you can be alerted the next time I post. (see upper right hand of page)

Toussaint infused New Orleans sound into pop music

New Orleans
Allen Toussaint plays the National Anthem at the Superdome. Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The French Quarter Festival, which showcases local music, could not have scored a better opening headliner this year than with the hometown artist whose creativity has nurtured the New Orleans sound for over a half century. (Listen to the show that complements this post.)

Allen Toussaint was a teenager when he first sat in on Earl King’s band and regularly scored gigs at the legendary Dew Drop Inn.

It wasn’t long before he found his way to the center of the known Rock n’ Roll universe at the time, Cosimo Matassa’s studio, where he laid down piano tracks on recordings by Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith, and Aaron Neville. But it was when he joined Minit Records that his creativity became apparent to the world. Using his parent’s living room as rehearsal space and testing ground for new material, he assembled a parade of hit singles by Jessie Hill, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey and this blog’s patron saint, Ernie K-Doe.

Ernie K-Doe best recordings were aided by the songwriting, arranging and producing of Allen Toussaint.

As a keyboard savant, Toussaint could accurately reproduce and synthesize the city’s revered legacy of piano professors, especially the style of Professor Longhair. But as a songwriter and arranger, he was able to weave the full panoply of New Orleans rhythms, vocal traditions and spirit into a clean appealing style for the pop market. In fact, he, along with K-Doe, were responsible for the sole number 1 pop chart hit recorded in New Orleans,  “Mother-in-Law.” (A song written before Toussaint was married and had one.)

Later, he started his own record labels providing a platform for local and national musicians to access the New Orleans sound. With The Meters as his studio house band, Toussaint was a key force behind the New Orleans funk sound that developed in the 70’s. A prolific songwriter, his music has been performed by The Rolling Stones (“Ruler of My Heart”), The Who (“Fortune Teller”), Bonnie Raitt (“What Do You Want the Boy To Do”), Devo (“Working in the Coal Mine”),  Al Hirt (“Java”), The Doors (“Get Out of My Life Woman”),  Jerry Garcia (“I’ll Take a Melody”), Glen Campbell (“Southern Nights”), Robert Palmer (“Sneaky Sally through the Alley”), The Pointer Sisters (“Yes, We Can Can”) and many more.

Linda and Paul McCartney performing with Allen Toussaint in his New Orleans studio in 1975.
Linda and Paul McCartney performing with Allen Toussaint in his New Orleans studio in 1975.

In 1973, Toussaint had a big hand in producing and performing on Dr. John’s album “In The Right Place.” Two years later, Linda and Paul McCartney moved their entourage to New Orleans to collaborate with Toussaint in his New Orleans studio on their album “Venus and Mars.”

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2009, and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011. If there’s any question of whether being a senior statesman of New Orleans music has diminished his chops, you need only look as far as his grammy-nominated, post-Katrina collaboration with Elvis Costello, “The River in Reverse,” for evidence that at 77, he still has it.

In addition to being a producer, bandleader, arranger and songwriter, Toussaint is an accomplished pianist and stands with the great New Orleans piano “professors.” Toussaint will take the stage at the French Quarter Festival on April 9 at 3:45 p.m. but you will be able to catch his music on my next show this Monday. (Here’s the recorded show)

NOLA studio and sound nerd help launch rock and roll era

Behind every great recording and concert, there’s a sound nerd making sure you hear what you’re supposed to hear.  In the case of Cosimo Matassa, what people heard was the beginnings of rock and roll.

Starting with “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, through “The Fat Man,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Tutti Fruti, “Rockin’ Pneumonia,”  “I Hear You Knockin,” and great many more, Matassa ensured the fidelity and sound quality of these early R&B and rock and roll hits.

Cosimo's recording career started out with using primitive equipment located in the back of an appliance and music shop.
Cosimo’s recording career started out with using primitive equipment located in the back of an appliance and music shop.

In 1945 at the tender age of 19, Cosimo opened an appliance store with a partner in New Orleans, hoping to take advantage of the pent up demand for home conveniences and the many new households that were forming after the war. The store also sold records.

His partner suggested they make recordings for their customers. Cosimo, being the more technical of the two, took on the task of getting that business going.  As a former Tulane chemistry major, he was your classic nerd.  But having spent a few years working with his Dad’s jukebox business, repairing the equipment and swapping out 78 rpm records, he was a nerd with an ear for music.

The J&M Music Shop was at the right place at the right time on the corner of Dumaine and Rampart, sitting between the French Quarter and the Fauberg Treme’ neighborhood – a center of African-American and Creole culture and home to many New Orleans musicians.

After World War II, people were ready to have fun.  And the music, particularly from a new generation of black New Orleans musicians raised on jazz, swing and big band music, was ready to make the party happen.

Fats Domino (left) and Dave Bartholomew generated a mountain of hits, all recorded from studios run by Cosimo Matassa.
Fats Domino (left) and Dave Bartholomew generated a mountain of hits, all recorded from studios run by Cosimo Matassa.

The studio’s success started with Roy Brown, who had just returned to New Orleans with his Gospel-trained voice and was performing at the famous Dew Drop Inn. It was in the back of the J&M in 1947 that Brown recorded the jump blues song, Good Rockin’ Tonight, a hit that can arguably be considered one of the first Rock and Roll songs.  Just ask Elvis.

Things really took off when horn player and band leader Dave Bartholomew started using the studio for his work as a musician, arranger and talent scout for Imperial Records. Through Bartholomew, early R&B greats like Smiley Lewis, Frankie Ford and Tommy Ridgley would record at the studio. But the star who solidifies the studio’s listing as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame landmark is Antoine “Fats” Domino.  Through a good chunk of the 50’s, Domino, with able assistance from Bartholomew and Matassa, released a series of R&B hits, finally crossing over into the pop charts with “Ain’t That a Shame” in 1955.  All of the Fats’ recordings as well as hundreds of other R&B and early rock and roll gems were recorded in that little studio.

Cosimo Matassa tat his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.

By 1956, Matassa was no longer selling appliances and had moved his studio to larger digs on Governor Nicholls Street in the French Quarter. Like many successful studios, Matassa’s operation benefitted from a talented group of studio musicians, usually organized by Bartholomew but also by the emerging talent, Allen Toussaint. These musicians included Earl Palmer on drums, Alvin “Red” Tyler and Lee Allen on sax, Frank Fields on bass, Huey Smith on piano and a large rotating cast of others.  The studio sound was so synonymous with success that labels, like Ace, Atlantic, Chess, Savoy, RCA Victor, Imperial and Specialty would send their artists to New Orleans to capture the magic.

Little Richard recorded Tutti Frutti, Good Golly Miss Molly, Lucille, Long Tall Sally and others at J&M studio.
Little Richard recorded Tutti Frutti, Good Golly Miss Molly, Lucille, Long Tall Sally and others at J&M studio.

One of the more legendary stories is how Richard Penniman found his mojo at the Dew Drop Inn during a recording break, which led to his breakout hit, Tutti Frutti backed up by the J&M musicians and recorded by Matassa. It’s almost wearying to list the musicians that recorded there, but I’ll add Mac Rebennak (before he became known as Dr. John), Art and Aaron Neville, Professor Longhair, Irma Thomas and Lee Dorsey to this amazing list.

Cosimo Matassa died in September (2014) at 88.  He was generous with his time, so it’s easy to find interviews of him, including one of my favorites.  He modestly takes little credit for the sounds he recorded. But he maintains that the limitations of the early technology were a benefit, requiring musicians to play a song all together from beginning to end, just like a live performance.  His job, he would say, was to get out of the way and let them do their thing.

Obviously, there was more to it than that because all the musicians who worked with him loved this unassuming nerdy son of Sicilian immigrants. His elegance was in his simplicity.  He took care of the technical part, creating an environment where craftsmanship and creativity could merge.

Cosimo Matassa at the controls in Sea-Saint Studios, a studio founded by Allen Toussaint who began his career at J&M Studio. Photo by The Times-Picayune.

“To have a job where you can listen to music all day.  Great way to make a living.  Lot of great New Orleans musicians made me look good.”

Needless to say, I’ll be hammering my collection of Matassa recordings on my next show this Monday, 10 a.m. to noon, KAOS, 89.3 FM. Streaming at www.kaosradio.org.