Cosimo Matassa (producer, New Orleans grocer, studio owner; April 13, 1926 – September 11, 2014)
Mr. Cosimo Metassa died the day after I arrived in New Orleans. Son of a Sicilian grocer who landed in New Orleans from Italy in the early 1900s, Cosimo Metassa, along with Dave Bartholomew, was the first man to realize the depth of talent bubbling from the streets of New Orleans. I never heard of him until meeting a man named Pete at "Uncle" Lionel Batiste's public wake at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in Armstrong Park. A series of of posts about Uncle Lionel's wake and funeral here.
At around the 2 minute mark of this July 23, 2012 pt at large video, Pete, who had been a neighbor of Uncle Lionel, spends a minute showing me his Metassa T shirt and telling me who the man was. On a shoestring budget with makeshift recording equipment, Metassa recorded artists such as Fats Domino, Little Richard, Professor Longhair, Ray Price, Roy Brown and dozens of others. It's entirely possible that these iconic artists would never have broken into popular American culture if not for Metassa's instincts. Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, he lived his entire life in New Orleans.
In October 2012 I viewed the "Unsung Heroes, The Secret History of Louisiana Rock n Roll" and learned more about Metassa.
A video of a 2004 interview with musician Earl Palmer and Mr. Metassa, gives a good glimpse of Metassa's talent and humility.
Two obituaries reflecting on the man and his achievements:
A short documentary at the end of this obituary explains that Italians, mostly Sicilian, faced ethnic hatred in the late 1800s and early 1900s when they were subject to murder and lynching. The largest immigrant lynching in the United States took place in New Orleans when 11 Italians were murdered in 1891. According to this documentary, citing "Lynchings in the United States 1882-1951", total victims were 70% Black, 30% Other (Italians, Mexicans, Chinese, Native Americans, Jews).
Sicilians and African-Americans often lived in the same neighborhoods in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One has to wonder what effect this had on Metassa's interest in black musicians whose work (then called "race music") was often profitably copied by white artists or was entirely unknown to anyone outside the confines of New Orleans. He ignored, at his peril, the segregation barriers in place in the 1940s when he began recording black artists. His recordings changed the history of popular American music. My great grandfather Salvatore Tamburello emigrated from Sicily, perhaps explains my affinity for New Orleans.
Another informative obituary:
A three hour program on New Orleans radio station WWOZ by Jamie Dell'Apa: New Orleans Music and a Few Words About Cosimo Metassa
"At its heart, my show is about presenting music absent its racial components. For instance, we focus on music from the 1950s to 1979s when musicians and record companies searched for a sound that would capture the increasing sales of "race records" because sales of "popular records" at the major labels were 1/2 of their pre-war levels. I also drop the fine line titles between "R&B" and "Rock and Roll" and "Blues" and "Rockabilly" and don't focus on racial elements of the musician's backgrounds. Paraphrasing New Orleans bassist, George Porter, "we were all playing the same music but people insisted on categorizing it by racial terms. Whites played "rock and roll" and blacks played "R&B" but us musicians knew it was all the same music. Tonight, a few words about another New Orleans practitioner of removing the racial component in presenting music, the late Cosimo Matassa."
Photo courtesy of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame