The recording session had not been going well on Sept. 14, 1955. The backing band - a series of heavyweights who usually played behind local New Orleans favorite Fats Domino - was not enthusiastic about the young, flamboyant singer from some nowhere town in Georgia.
A lunch break was called, and the artist, an unknown by the name of Richard Wayne Penniman, went out to eat with his producer, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. At some point, in some New Orleans restaurant, Penniman strode to a piano and beat out an original number, one whose immediacy was more in line with what he wanted to record.
He began by scatting a desired drum fill (“a-wop-bom-a-loo-mop, a-lomp-bom-bom!”) and then shrieked as much as sang the opening line:
Tutti Fruitti! Good booty!
If it don’t fit, don’t force it
You can grease it, make it easy
At that moment, Richard Penniman became Little Richard.
The melody was undeniable, but the lyric was too dirty for release. Blackwell immediately got a secretary to rewrite the unprintable content, and rushed back to the studio to get the band together.
The seminal recording that resulted marked an early moment in the development of rock and roll and established a production standard that has seldom been met. The studio that produced “Tutti Frutti,” and most of Little Richard’s greatest early recordings, was owned by New Orleans-born Cosimo Matassa. Matassa died Thursday at the age of 88.
The history of American popular music cannot be written without paying homage to New Orleans, and the history of New Orleans music - at least that which was recorded - cannot be written without speaking of Matassa.
Most of the 20th-century’s greatest cut tracks there: the aforementioned Little Richard, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Ray Charles, Professor Longhair, Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville and too many others almost to be counted.
Matassa engineered most of those sessions, working with producers like “Bumps” Blackwell and Allen Toussaint. Together, these men formed the sound that became the aesthetic foundation of rock and roll and rhythm and blues.
There is a ferocity to these recordings - an intensity - that others could only try to match. Matassa didn’t just capture sounds, he captured the intent behind the creation of those sounds. He captured the elation and terrifying freedom that inspired the very music itself.
Matassa was born in New Orleans in 1926. After briefly considering a career in chemistry, he opened the J&M Recording studio as a teenager in 1945 on Rampart Street - years before a young Sam Phillips did something similar in Memphis with what became Sun Records. In 1947 Matassa recorded Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight - a song later covered by Elvis Presley with culturally tectonic results. Two years later, a young Fats Domino would record his hit single “The Fat Man” in J&M, and a clear-cut path to rock and roll was created.
A string of extraordinary achievements followed. A young Jerry Lee Lewis took the bus into New Orleans to cut his first demos with Matassa. Professor Longhair recorded “Tipitina” there as well - a song so foundational to New Orleans that it seems to have always existed. Matassa captured Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is” as well as “Ain’t Got No Home” by Clarence “Frogman” Henry.
Simply put, there are only a handful of studios in the history of American recording that can boast of having a hand in the creation of such sustained magic. The studio’s original location was designated a historic landmark in December 1999. If you visit the site, now a laundromat, at 838 North Rampart Street, you can still read “J&M Music Shop” written in tile on the threshold.
Cosimo Matassa retired from the music business in the 1980s to help run his family’s grocery store. In 2012 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performer. The Blues Hall of Fame inducted him last year.
Much is made, rightly, of the people who write and perform popular music. But musicians themselves will tell you that it is the producers and engineers who can make or break them - a badly recorded song doesn’t sound good, no matter how well it’s performed. Much of what we know about how music should rock is informed, not only by legends like Little Richard and Fats Domino, but by Cosimo Matassa, the man who got that ferocity on tape.
"I wanted to be a just conduit of what performance was,” he told an interviewer in 2012, “- a performance frozen in time, if you will. So if you didn’t know I was there, I did my job.”