by Lauren Vogel Weiss
Almost every drummer has a pair of nylon-tip sticks. The man who first decided to put nylon tips on wooden drumsticks was a very clever and innovative drummer named Joe Calato.
As a cabinetmaker and part-time musician raising a family in the early 1950s, Calato recalls what led him to one of the most radical changes to a drumstick in the 20th century. "At that time, I couldn't afford to buy drumsticks. Top [ride] cymbals would wear out the tips of the sticks. I used to keep a piece of sandpaper handy to sand the tips down and then dip them into fingernail polish to put a coating on them. When they were dry, I'd use that pair again. One day I thought I should try to put a plastic tip on the stick. So I got a screwdriver with a yellow plastic handle, cut out a piece, whittled out a tip, and stuck it on a stick." That was the beginning of the Regal Tip drumstick.
Who was this young drummer and innovator? Born in 1921 in Niagara Falls, New York (where he has lived his whole life, and where the J.D. Calato Manufacturing Company is based), Joe D. Calato followed in his father's footsteps. "My father was a pit drummer in the days of vaudeville. I started to play when I was thirteen years old, because you could make fifty cents to two dollars a night, which was a lot of money for a teenager back then!" Calato says with a laugh. Under his graduation photo in his high school yearbook, Joe was labeled "gum-chewing drummer boy."
Calato was going to school at the University of Buffalo, majoring in engineering, when Uncle Sam decided he needed to learn more about aeronautics. He joined the Air Force in 1942, serving as a lieutenant and navigator on a B-17 bomber. Stationed mainly in England during World War II, Calato found many opportunities to play drums in military jazz groups and dance bands.
When he returned to New York, he utilized his skills as a cabinetmaker, patternmaker, and jigmaker and opened his own shop building kitchen cabinets. Soon after, he combined his woodworking talents with his love of music and began making drumsticks in his basement. Once the local drummers heard about his new sticks, they would give him their sticks so he could grind off the tips and put on the plastic ones. In 1958, he placed a small ad in the International Musician (the newspaper of the American Federation of Musicians) offering the sticks for $1.95.
"The mailman came back with a bag full of orders," remembers Calato. "They would ask for different models, but I sent them all 7As with a nylon tip and nobody complained! I built my own machinery to make the sticks, and soon I started making five models."
Martin Cohen, founder of Latin Percussion, Inc., tried his friend's advice when he started his business a few years later. "Joe told me that when he opened the mailbox, checks fell out from the orders those ads brought in," Cohen recalls. "I did the same thing and didn't get a single order! But the fact that he was succeeding gave me hope."
Calato eventually borrowed money from the bank to buy out the George W. Way Company in Chicago and brought their machinery to Niagara Falls. His fledgling business moved out of his basement and into the location where his cabinet shop had been. Walter Mocniak, a former employee at the cabinet company, stayed with Calato in his new venture and worked his entire career with his former boss. Although neither one had ever been inside a drumstick factory, the two built and designed countless machines over the years, some of them still in use at the plant today.
Word about Regal Tip sticks quickly began spreading. Jake Hanna, who was traveling with Woody Herman at the time, had a great influence in the popularity of the sticks. "When the Herman band was playing in Buffalo," explains Calato, "I showed Jake the sticks and we spent the whole night talking about drumming. Jake took some sticks with him, and I could tell where he was in the country or the world because letters would come in inquiring about the sticks."
Brushes became another of Regal Tip's innovations. "In my early years," Calato recalls, "brushes were a big part of drumming. I never thought there was a good brush on the market, and I always wanted to make brushes. So I acquired the brush equipment from C. Bruno & Son in exchange for selling them sticks. We turned the brush business around. The brushes we developed and perfected have been copied even more than the nylon-tip sticks. I still think we have the finest brushes made."
The first Regal Tip brushes (model 550W on a wood handle) were introduced in 1962, and the company patented retractable-handle brushes in 1975. The popular Blasticks was added to the line in 1982. "I remember a NAMM show in Anaheim," Calato says. "A young man named Andy Phreaner came to our booth with these plastic brushes. I was impressed with his product and offered to make them. He replied, 'That's why I came here to meet you!' We've had a good business relationship ever since."
Regal Tip is not just Joe Calato; it is truly a family business. Not only did his wife Kay manage the bookkeeping duties in the early years, but all three of Joe's children have been involved at one time or another. Daughter Carol Calato is currently the president of the company, having worked her way up from secretary through marketing and international sales. Younger daughter Cathy Calato is vice-president of the manufacturing company and president of Direct Music Supply, a distribution company for Regal Tip as well as a full-line of percussion products for North America. Son Joe S. Calato ("Joe Jr." -- thus the nickname "Joe Sr." for Joe D. Calato) has also served as president of the firm. Even Joe's grandson is a drummer working in the retail end of the music business.
"As a boss," Carol says, "my father has always been tough but fair on his children. I've always said that my brother, my sister, and I each have certain areas of the business in which we are adept, but it takes all three of us to equal my dad."
Cathy remembers her first job at the company -- packing drumsticks. "He made us learn the business from the bottom up," she says. "We had to learn everything before we could even think of managing a business, which was helpful because it gave us more insight. I appreciate how much I learned from him because he was such a good businessman and taught us so many business skills."
"Not only does my father have one of the most innovative minds that I know," Carol adds, "but he also has a very sharp business mind. He has an uncanny ability to determine the cost of a product without time studies, and he knows how to manufacture efficiently. He is also very principled and honest."
Joe Calato's "extended family" assisted him getting his innovative products in the hands of drummers all across the country. "People like Maurie Lishon from Franks Drum Shop in Chicago, Bob Yeager from the Professional Drum Shop in Los Angeles, Moe Mahoney in Las Vegas, and Frank Ippolito in New York all helped out," he says. "And Henry Adler gave me my first order for one hundred sticks." Calato remembers the first time he saw his sticks in a store outside of the U.S. "It was in Italy and I didn't realize that I'd be so well known. I walked in and introduced myself and they made a big fuss over me.
"My business was not about the profit," Calato states. "From the beginning, we made a quality product that you could be proud of. And we made it affordable because I couldn't afford to buy drumsticks when I started out. I was always concerned about the player; the player comes first."
"Joe Sr." has some advice for young drummers. "Education is the most important thing in anybody's life. Young drummers today have a golden opportunity to learn the profession of drumming and percussion, something that people years ago did not have. I never saw a big-name drummer play in person because without a car you couldn't even get to Buffalo, which was only twenty to twenty-five miles away. Years ago they joked that a band has five musicians and a drummer. Today, we've become musicians. Music is the best hobby in the world, especially if you've got a nice diploma to fall back on."
When asked about her father's greatest contribution to percussion, Carol Calato pauses before replying. "He set the standards for many products that are on the market now. He upgraded the drumstick in addition to inventing the nylon tip. He did the same thing with brushes, setting the standard for brushes today. He is very quality conscious, and if he's going to put his name on anything, it's got to be good. His accessories are often copied, and he actually considers that a compliment!"
At the age of 80, Joe Calato is not involved in the business on a daily basis but he is still coming up with new ideas for products and the machinery to create them. According to Carol, "His love for this industry and his company is just as keen today as it was years ago."
Regal Tip Timeline
1958 - perfects the nylon-tip stick
1962 - first Regal Tip brush (wood handle)
1963 - Regal Tip wood tip sticks introduced into market
1975 - patents retractable brushes
1976 - patents reversible practice pad and Calato Dual Spring Bass Drum Pedal
1979 - begins to manufacture Saul Goodman timpani mallets
1982 - introduces Blasticks (bundled plastic rods)
1985 - patents Regal Corps marching mallets
1990 - introduces Splitstix
1995 - introduces Conga Sticks
1996 - introduces nylon-capped timbale sticks
1998 - patents Drum Corps 2000 marching mallets