Viola Smith, the pioneering swing and big band drummer who was promoted as “fastest girl drummer in the world,” died of Alzheimer complications on Wednesday in Costa Mesa, California. She was 107 years old.
Born in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin on November 29, 1912, Smith grew up with seven sisters and two brothers, all of whom learned multiple instruments at an early age. Her father, a cornetist, assembled the Schmitz Sisters Family Orchestra when Smith was a teenager. “There were 10 of us, eight of us were in the orchestra,” Smith told DrumTalkTV in 2017. “We all played the piano, we had two pianos and an organ at home, my two brothers were practicing the piano and overheard my dad say he was going to have an all-girl orchestra. I couldn’t have wished for anything better, see, I was the sixth [daughter]. The older ones got instruments like the piano and the violin, then saxophone and then came the trumpet and the trombone. My dad said ‘Now, we need a drummer!’ Thank god, I was it.”
After playing in theatres on weekends and during summer vacation, Smith formed another all-female orchestra, The Coquettes, with her bass-playing sister Mildred, in 1938. The group moved to New York in 1942, where Smith studied under Radio City Music Hall drummer Billy Gladstone. That same year, she penned an article for Down Beat magazine titled ‘Give Girl Musicians a Break!’ in which she argued, “In these times of national emergency, many of the star instrumentalists of the big name bands are being drafted. Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their place?’
“We girls have as much stamina as men,” she continued. “There are many girl trumpet players, girl saxophonists and girl drummers who can stand the grind of long tours and exacting one-night stands. The girls of today are not the helpless creatures of earlier generations.”
Around the same time, Smith received a summer scholarship to the Juilliard School, where she studied under Ed Fisher, and joined Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm all-girl orchestra. With her signature 12-kit drum, Smith became famous for her speed and precision. At the height of her success, she performed with Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, Bob Hope, as well as at the second inauguration for Harry Truman in 1949.
In addition to Hour of Charm, Smith also led her own band, Viola and her Seventeen Drums, and later played with the Kit Kat Band, which featured in the original 1960s Broadway production of Cabaret, as well as the NBC Symphony Orchestra and on The Ed Sullivan Show. She continued to play long after her 100th birthday with bands in her final hometown of Costa Mesa, California. “One thing always led to another,” Smith said in a video interview with Tom Tom, a magazine about female drummers, in 2013. “It was all very easy, the transitions, there was no big deal I had to worry about ever … I really had a charmed life. Unless people call drumming work. Then I worked hard in my life.”