Viola Smith, a pioneering drummer and original “hep girl” of the swing and big band era, died on Wednesday in Costa Mesa, California. She was 107.
Promoted in the 1930s as the “fastest girl drummer in the world” and credited with blazing a path for women in what had been a male preserve, Smith sat behind a giant drum set that included a double bass drum, an instrument that would years later become a tool for hard-hitting rock drummers.
Smith took up drumming as a teenager in Wisconsin, when her father assembled the Schmitz Sisters Family Orchestra with his eight daughters. Her showcase was The Snake Charmer, a jazzy arabesque with explosive drum-fills.
We girls have as much stamina as men … girl drummers can stand the grind of long tours and exacting one-night stands
“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.
“Well, when they heard that, that was the end of the practicing [for them], no more piano from then on at all!” Because she was the sixth daughter in the family, she said, her older sisters got the strings and brass.
“My dad said, ‘Now, we need a drummer!’ Thank God, I was it.”
The band played in theatres during school vacations. Smith took lessons from drummers in the orchestra pit. The band soon found themselves in demand for weddings and state fairs. In 1938, Smith formed another all-female orchestra, The Coquettes, with her bass playing sister Mildred. The band moved to New York in 1942, where Smith studied under the legendary snare-drum innovator Billy Gladstone.
In the same year, as men were being drafted to war and women taking their place in factories, Viola wrote a now-famous article for Down Beat magazine, arguing for the inclusion of women in the big bands of the day.
“Many of the star instrumentalists of the big name bands are being drafted,” she wrote, under the title Give Girl Musicians A Break! “Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their places?
“We girls have as much stamina as men. 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 an earlier generations.
“Some girl musicians who are as much the masters of their instruments as are male musicians. They can improvise; their solos are well-defined and thought-provoking and show unlimited imagination.” Smith concluded what was effectively a manifesto with a provocative instruction to male bandleaders: “Think it over, boys.”
With a kit featuring 12 drums, Smith didn’t always meet with neutral critical acclaim, one reviewer dismissing her a “pulchritudinous Miss who so adeptly maneuvers the drums and cymbals”.
Smith found it difficult to lead the orchestra from behind the drums, so she turned over those duties to Frances Carroll, described by the Washington Post as a “flame-haired, hip-swiveling singer and dancer whose ravishing looks were accented by decolletage-baring gowns”. But at the height of her success, Smith performed with Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb, as well as at the second inauguration for the 33rd president, Harry Truman, in 1949.
After 15 years on the road, Smith won a summer scholarship to study timpani at the Juilliard School in New York. She continued to perform, as a member of Phil Spitalny all-girl Hour Of Charm orchestra and later as a member of the Kit Kat Band jazz quartet featured in the musical Cabaret, on Broadway.
“One thing always led to another,” Smith told 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.”