African American NOLA musicians rocked the nation

With the onset of African American History Month, I thought it worthwhile to address the role of New Orleans in launching Rock n’ Roll. Cause the very fact that the city’s contribution is relatively unknown is a reflection in part of the broader subjugation of the African-American credit for creating the music in the first place.

Whether you date the beginning of Rock n’ Roll to Louis Jordan’s Saturday Night Fish Fry, Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight,  Fats Domino’s The Fat Man, or even the non-New Orleans recording of Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston, what’s abundantly clear is that this music originated from African Americans–not white boys like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley.

Alan Freed, the white deejay credited for popularizing the term Rock n’ Roll, essentially used the term to rebrand Rhythm and Blues which was associated with black music. For that matter, the term Rhythm and Blues was created by a Billboard Magazine writer in 1949 to replace the previously used term “Race Music.”

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Little Richard recorded almost all of his big hits in New Orleans.

Back to New Orleans, many of these early Rock hits were recorded in the J&M Studio on Rampart Street on New Orleans — located within a Russell Wilson touchdown pass of Congo Square where people of color (free and enslaved) gathered on Sundays and practiced the drum beats and rhythms that fueled jazz, swing, jump blues and Rock n’ Roll.  The studio also recorded a great many other early Rock hits, including almost all of Little Richard’s hits.

Through radio, white youth were exposed to black artists–a wonderful testament of the integrating power of the air waves.  In a bizarre twist, some white deejays hosted “Rhythm and Blues” shows and pretended to be black when introducing the songs. To sound authentic, a New Orleans deejay hired an African American to write his script.

While Fats Domino is unlikely to be included in the pantheon of civil rights leaders, his music and performances went a long way toward breaking down the walls of segregation. First, his records sold more than any artists other than Elvis during the 50s. (One million copies of The Fat Man were sold within the first three years of its release)

But it was in Domino’s performances where push came to shove. After all, can you really stand still to his music? (Go ahead, try!) Even though performance halls attempted to segregate white and black audiences, dancing ensued and elbows rubbed, flummoxing police and other security who often caused riots by trying to break up the mingling.

Antoine “Fats” Domino was on the vanguard of Rock n’ Roll, performing to white and black audiences and selling more records than any other Rock musician, except for Elvis.

That mingling particularly scared Southern segregationist who contributed to the public venom poured on Rock n’ Roll, providing more than the usual incentive for music promoters to put a white face on this popular music.

Yet Domino continued to perform throughout the country, at a time when black musicians often had to sleep in their cars or buses because hotels would not accept them.

When he appeared on television, his band, all African American musicians, were often hidden from sight.

If you’re interested in learning more about Fats Domino during his period, I recommend “Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock n’ Roll” by Rick Coleman. It was Coleman’s book who tipped me off to the Pat Boone shadow.  Boone recorded a number of African American rock numbers, illustrating just how easy it is to sap the soul from a number.

Here is Fat’s doing Ain’t That a Shame.  And here’s Boone doing the same song which he apparently wanted to retitle “Isn’t That a Shame”. . . It sure was.

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.