Thompson among his many musical instruments.
Photo from the Village of Covington website. A sign honoring Thompson at the Village offices in Covington.
By Judy Deeter
Covington Musician, Inventor Leaves Lasting Impact on the World
COVINGTON - Among the famous residents of Covington, Ohio is Joe Thompson, a former resident and inventor of the Flutophone.
The Flutophone was one of a number of musical devices created by Thompson. He held 43 patents for mostly-
musical related inventions—from a cymbal stand to a multi-tone whistle. His inventions literally changed the sounds of music throughout the world.
The Flutophone is a small plastic wind instrument that looks similar to a clarinet. Thompson created it in 1943 as a way to introduce children to playing musical instruments (before their family spent money on expensive real instruments).
The Flutophone, along with another Thompson invention known as the Recorder, are sometimes referred to as “pre-band instruments”—musical instruments used by youngsters prior to playing in the school band. It has been estimated that more that 35 million children have played the Flutophone, including thousands here in the Miami Valley.
A December 1946 article written by Charlotte McClure (published in the Week End Spotlight and titled “Musical Designers for Santa Claus”) shows photographs and describes plastic instruments created by Thompson and played in his “musical toy shop” by him and his friends G.F. (Biddy) Etter and John J. Hessler. Featured in the article were toy replicas of real instruments. The small replicas were named: “The Dixie fife, Hezzie Slide whistle, Sax-o-Fun and Flutophone.”
Thompson was born in Newton Township of Miami County on Nov. 5, 1897, as Josephus Brown Thompson. It is believed that even as a boy he was intrigued by things that were both musical and mechanical.
Sometime during his childhood, he inherited a boxwood clarinet from his grandfather. Even when Thompson was young, the instrument was considered to be very old. (Production of the boxwood clarinet ended in 1825.) The instrument may have spurred Thompson’s lifelong interest in collecting and playing historical musical instruments.
As a young man, he played drums and saxophone with several local groups. In 1924, he and friend, Biddy Etter, opened the Piqua Music Shop at the corner of Wayne and Water streets in Piqua. The business is thought to have prospered until the stock market crashed in 1929. The store was closed soon after the market crash.
After this, Thompson started an instrument repair business on his father’s farm south of Covington and played one-night stands in a six-man dance band. Thompson’s musical instrument repair business was so successful, however, that in 1939, he and Etter again became business partners. At first, they ran their music operation from a building behind Thompson’s home. Later they opened the Thompson-Etter Music Store on High Street in Covington. They operated their music shop until Etter retired in 1967.
Thompson not only repaired damaged musical instruments; he experimented with instruments in good shape and changed them so they produced different sounds. He enjoyed taking instruments apart and putting them back together.
In the late 1930s, Thompson met Henry Grossman, owner and founder of Grossman Music Corporation, a wholesale music supplier in Cleveland. Grossman arranged for the development of and sales of many of Thompson’s inventions, including the Flutophone. What Thompson invented, Grossman sold. For the rest of their lives, they were very close friends and business associates.
In the early 1950s, Grossman purchased the Rogers Drum Company in New Jersey. Thompson is believed to have told Grossman that if he bought Rogers Drum, he would run it for him. The New Jersey Rogers factory building was in very poor condition. Grossman thought upgrading it would cost too much money and considered building a new plant. Thompson, who did not want to leave Covington, offered to build a new Rogers factory on his own land in Covington. So it was that Rogers Drum Company opened a manufacturing site in Covington in 1954.
The Covington Rogers Drum Company building was partially built by Thompson—he did the actual labor. On areas of the building where he did not do the construction, he supervised those who did work on it. Thompson was not a builder and he made some humorous mistakes as the building was being erected. Nevertheless, a fine building was constructed.
Ben Strauss, a Pennsylvania-band leader and musician joined Thompson in operating the new factory. Together, they made the Rogers Drum Company one of the finest drum companies in the world.
The company stayed in Covington until the late 1960s. Grossman sold the drum manufacturing side of the business to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1966. (He retained the Rogers accessory side of the business.) CBS first moved some company operations to Dayton and then the entire company moved to California in 1969.
Though Thompson passed away in 1968, he left a lasting legacy in Covington. A eulogy given by Grossman at his funeral described Thompson as a devoted friend, teacher and a man who was “an inexhaustible fountain of ideas.”
Former Rogers’ employee Jerry Shields, who worked directly with Thompson in testing drums, recalled: “He was quiet and plain. He was a little bit of a comedian—he teased the ladies a lot. But if he got mad at you, you knew it. He was very generous.”
Tom Carder, past president of the Covington-Newberry Historical Society, says, “He was a heck of a musician. He was uncomfortable being dressed up. He was more comfortable in common work clothes than a suit.”
Author Rob Cook said of Thompson in his book The Rogers Book: “Thompson was a small wiry man with a quick wit and unpretentious style. A gold tooth flashed when he smiled and he often wore a felt hat cocked to one side. He has been described as an eccentric and genius.”
More than 40 years after his death, Thompson is still a beloved man in Covington.
Grossman passed away in 1995. Grossman, known as “Uncle Henry” to many Rogers’ employees, had no children because he did not marry until he was 90-years-old. His nephew, Joseph Berger, joined the company in the 1940s and eventually became company president. When he passed away, Grossman’s great-nephew Richard Berger became head of the firm, which is today known as Grover Music/Trophy Music Products. Trophy Music Company of Cleveland still makes and sells Flutophones. In fact, Richard Berger donated 500 Flutophones to Covington for its 175th anniversary celebration in 2010.