By TOM CHESEK
In New Orleans, it’s the legendary J&M Music Store and its adjacent recording studio that inspires the same kind of reverent chills as those pop-cultural outposts. Until it was done in nearly forty years ago by its inability to fulfill unexpected nationwide demand for Aaron Neville‘s single “Tell It Like It Is,” Cosimo Matassas record shop was the scene of some of the most instantly familiar pop, rock and R&B waxings in history including one many musicologists jaw up as the first-ever rock and roll disc, Fats Dominos 1949 “The Fat Man.”
Little Richard, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Professor Longhair and Lloyd “Stagger Lee” Price also managed to cut some scintillating sides there. And yet, even though Matassa’s still alive and operating a family deli in a higher-ground neighborhood of the post-Katrina Big Easy, mementos of his landmark old business have been all but nonexistent, until now.
What’s this got to do with Red Bank? Not much, except that, with the worlds first-ever line of J&M logowear now available for sale in her store, a veteran Broad Street merchant has almost singlehandedly salvaged the legend of the J&M Music Store.
A couple of generations worth of Red Bank shoppers have known the kitschy-cool vintage boutique Backward Glances and its proprietor, Cindy Wolfson Ciullo, as the go-to source for all things retro without the retch. It’s place where Halloween is Christmas and where the owner has evidenced a remarkable staying power, selling pre-owned oddities and repro commodities at affordable prices, on the busiest block of what has become a Tiffany kind of town.
One would have to reckon that Wolfson Ciullo’s survival of the Red Bank retail rollercoaster for more than 20 years is due at least in part to a genuine passion for her specialty. Check and extra points for guessing that she’s also an aficionado and authority on the period tunes that play throughout the store.
Her love of R&B is particularly strong. For the past 13 years, the Perth Amboy resident and her husband, Dave Ciullo have made a pilgrimage to New Orleans, attending the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival that commences at the end of each April. Theyve been going down there since making it their honeymoon, in fact, and in their travels around town including a stint volunteering at a food bank in the wake of the Katrina-FEMA disaster they got to know a number of people in the local music biz, the great Cosimo included.
As Wolfson Ciullo tells it, “That first year after Katrina, they were thanking us for coming down to the Jazz Fest. They needed the fans and the tourists more than ever, and they wanted to tell everyone how much the government screwed them over.”
But to the couple, even their volunteer work didn’t seem enough. “We’ve been looking since Katrina to do something else to help, and we saw that no one had ever done anything promoting the J&M studio,” Wolfson Ciullo says as she peers from behind her trademark cats-eye glasses. The idea of resurrecting the J&M logo took hold of their imaginations. “My husband and I looked at each other and said, could we do this?”
They decided to try. Ah, but for which charity? They settled on the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, a venerable institution dedicated to the health and wellbeing of the citys music-minded human resources. Basing a shirt design on a surviving bit of sidewalk signage outside the old J&M building (now a dry cleaner) and obtaining Matassa’s blessing, Cindy and Dave set about producing a line of tees in a couple of different color combos and sizes that range from a ladies small to a mens XXXL.
The bold and stylishly simple designs sporting a laundry-list of J&M vets on the back have been on display at Backward Glances since Black Friday, and the store has fulfilled numerous online orders through a link to the Jazz and Heritage Festival site.
All profits from the shirts (priced $16 to $18) are being dedicated to the clinic, and the Ciullos hope to find a sympathetic ear with Jersey Shore musicians as well as scores of sympathetic torsos among the attendees of next years Red Bank Jazz and Blues Festival.
It’s also a project that ties the couple ever more deeply to the city whose music brought them together, Cindy says. New Orleans, she says, “is coming back slowly, and we’re doing what we can to help.”