If you were asked to name a famous female drummer, who would she be? Perhaps Cindy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington, or Shelia E.? Depending on when you were born, you might mention Karen Carpenter or Hannah Welton. But the real pioneer of female drummers may be Viola Smith.
In his letter of nomination, Garry Kvistad, a member of Nexus as well as Steve Reich and Musicians, called Smith “a groundbreaking musician who lived a long life as a featured performer in many bands, on television, in film, on Broadway, and in recording studios. She began performing with her family members as a child prodigy and continued playing and recording practically up to her death in October 2020 at the age of 107.”
World-renowned solo percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie learned the news of Smith’s passing through The New York Times and the BBC. “Immediately, I started to delve into Viola’s life and work,” she remembered, “and I simply could not believe how ignorant I was of her remarkable career, innovation, and sheer tenacity. How had I gone through my career without knowing this remarkable woman?”
GROWING UP IN A FAMILY OF MUSICIANS
Born Viola Clara Schmitz on November 29, 1912 in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, she was one of ten children. They all studied piano and could read music, and in the 1920s, their father organized the Smith Sisters Orchestra (originally called the Schmitz Sisters Family Orchestra). Since the older girls were already playing string and brass instruments, young Viola was designated the family’s drummer. During school vacations, they played at county and state fairs before joining the RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) circuit, playing in vaudeville and movie theaters in the Midwest, where Viola learned her craft from other touring drummers in the orchestra pit. The Smith Sisters Orchestra gained even more fame after an appearance on Major Bowes Amateur Hour, a 1930s talent show broadcast on the radio. In 1936, they embarked on a year-long national tour as part of an all-girl revue sponsored by the radio program.
“We practiced a lot,” Viola said in a January 2013 interview with Tom Tom magazine. [www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlzCWHw7ZW8] “We had time to play and have fun, but after school, it was two hours of practice every day, even during school vacations. We traveled with the family orchestra, and as the older ones married, dropped out, or went back to school, only two of us were left.”
In 1938, Viola and her multi-instrumentalist sister Mildred organized The Coquettes, an 11-member all-female swing orchestra. Finding it difficult to lead the orchestra from behind the drums, Viola invited Frances Carroll to be the bandleader.
In 1939, the ensemble appeared in a ten-minute film, Frances Carroll and “The Coquettes,” distributed by Warner Bros. and Vitaphone. [www.youtube.com/watch?v=FA-LIYrfK2E] Songs included in the film were “When I Swing My Stick,” “The Girl Friend of the Whirling Dervish,” “Jitterbug Jump,” and the jazzy arabesque number “Snake Charmer,” featuring Smith in her trademark drum solo [2:35 into the film], which might remind viewers of Gene Krupa’s drum solo in “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Viola’s distinctive signature kit included a snare drum, bass drum, two mounted toms, a floor tom, three cymbals, a hi-hat, two pedestal-style timpani, a vibraphone, a set of Chinese-style temple blocks, and two large Chinese tom-toms mounted to her right and left about shoulder height, often played with mallets instead of traditional drumsticks.
Smith was featured on the cover of the February 24, 1940 issue of The Billboard magazine, billed as “acclaimed America’s Fastest Girl Drummer.” The Coquettes were part of a wave of all-female orchestras that were dominant during World War II, when many of their male counterparts were going overseas.
NYC AND WORLD WAR II
After four years, The Coquettes disbanded. “My sister got married and I decided I wanted to get off the road,” Viola told Tom Tom magazine. “I was tired of traveling. So I went to New York to get my union card. It was an exciting time to be in New York. The streets were full of sailors and servicemen, and 52nd Street was a swinging street. I saw Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Billie Holiday.” She also recalled seeing Jo Jones play with Count Basie, and seeing Woody Herman’s band.
While she was in New York, Viola received a summer scholarship to The Juilliard School of Music, where she studied timpani with Saul Goodman. She also took lessons from Karl Glassman of the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
Another of her teachers in New York was Billy Gladstone, who was playing at Radio City Music Hall. “Billy was the best drummer in America,” Viola said. “He saw me play somewhere and asked me to come backstage. He showed me a special snare drum he had made and told me he was going to make me one! I was just flabbergasted.”
In 1942, Viola joined Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm Orchestra (also known as his All-Girl Orchestra), perhaps the most famous, and commercially successful, female ensemble in the country. She played with him for 13 years until the orchestra disbanded in 1954. The ensemble included as many as 32 musicians and ten singers on stage at one time and often worked 50 weeks a year. In addition to popular songs of the day, they played semi-classical repertoire, like Ravel’s “Bolero,” with Viola playing the famous snare drum part.
During 1944, the Hour of Charm Orchestra, featuring “Viola and Her Seventeen Drums,” was playing five shows a day at the Paramount Theater in Manhattan. A newspaper clipping from the 1940s called Viola Smith the “dynamic drummer of Phil Spitalny’s ‘Hour of Charm’ all-girl orchestra who ‘stopped the show’ with her original ‘Drum Concerto’.”
Viola was also singled out in several issues of Billboard magazine. In 1943, Sam Honigberg reviewed a January 21 show at The Roxy in New York City: “Viola Smith, hot drummer, and Ruth, trumpeteer, pair up in a torrid bit of rhythm that is a highlight in the show.” A few months later, another review of Sptalny’s band stated, “Viola Smith did a Gene Krupa at the drums,” referring to their April 23 show at The Earle Theatre in Philadelphia.
During these years, Spitalny and the orchestra appeared in two films: When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1942), where the female musicians filled in for their male counterparts who were fighting World War II, and Here Come the Co-Eds (1945), an Abbott and Costello comedy where the women portrayed musicians in a girls’ dormitory.
One of Viola’s most memorable performances was at President Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1949, where two dozen acts, featuring over 700 entertainers from stage, screen, concert, radio, and opera fame, performed in the National Guard Armory in Washington. D.C. “They had Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Phil Spitalny,” she recalled. “We had a revolving stage in this huge auditorium. We could see Truman and his wife sitting in the first row of the balcony. It was quite an exciting evening.”
After the Hour of Charm Orchestra disbanded, Smith led her own band for a while, called Viola and Her Seventeen Drums. In 1949 and 1950, she also played percussion in the National Orchestral Association, under the direction of Léon Barzin.
ADVOCATING FOR FEMALE MUSICIANS
Garry Kvistad credited Smith as “a respected and successful advocate for female musicians. Her argument that women musicians could play just as well as men was decades ahead of the women’s movement of the 1970s.”
Dr. Annie Stevens, Associate Professor of Percussion at Virginia Tech and a member of the marimba duo Escape Ten, agreed that Viola “should be recognized for her relentless pursuit to encourage a place for female musicians in a male-dominated musical arena. Beyond her seat behind the drums, she used her voice to support women filling in on the bandstand as men were being sent off to war in the early 1940s.”
In 1942, Viola penned the article “Give Girl Musicians a Break!” which was published in DownBeat magazine. “Why not let the girls play in the big-name bands?” wrote Smith. “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 places? Today, I think, marks the most opportune time we girl musicians have ever had to take our right places in the big dance bands and do our bit to keep up the morale of the country by keeping the country’s music alive. There’s nothing wrong with the idea. Girls work right along beside men in the factories, in the offices, in nearly every trade or profession you can name. So why not in dance bands?”
Viola’s article concluded with, “Now is the time for all girl-musicians to seek to be recognized. All the prominent band leaders are worrying themselves sick as sideman after sideman is called into the army, with no replacements for them in sight. And yet, I think they are overlooking a very fertile field in the girl musicians that are available. And too, just think of all the showmanship that the presence of a member of the fair sex in a band would provide!”
She ended her op-ed piece with, “Think it over, boys.” Viola’s words struck a chord with women across the country,
Viola was also breaking other gender barriers, appearing as an endorser for WFL Drums and Zildjian cymbals. The copy in a 1950 print ad read, “Featured with Phil Spitalny’s famous ‘Hour of Charm’ All-Girl Orchestra, Viola and her striking, blue flash WFL drums win enthusiastic praise from coast to coast! When spotlighted for a solo, the superb technique and brilliant showmanship she displays on her handsome WFL’s are breathtaking! Mr. Spitalny and Miss Smith both insist upon EYE-APPEAL as well as EAR APPEAL.”
NO RETIREMENT IN SIGHT
During the 1960s, Smith was the drummer for the Kit Kat Band in the original Broadway production of Cabaret, which ran from November 20, 1966 to September 6, 1969 and won the Tony award for Best Musical in 1967. Viola recalled her time onstage in the Tom Tom interview. “Every time there was a scene in the nightclub, we were on a platform. It was exciting because there were lights all around the stage and we could see about 20 rows into the audience. Every night we saw stars from Hollywood. It was one of the highlights of my life in music.”
As a member of the Kit Kat Band, Viola made several television appearances during 1967, including The Ed Sullivan Show, the Tony Awards, and I’ve Got a Secret. They also performed on Liza Minnelli’s television special, Liza with a Z.
Dr. Kay Stonefelt, Director of Percussion Studies at SUNY-Fredonia, remembers watching Spitalny’s big band and the Kit Kat Band on The Ed Sullivan Show. “At the time, I was becoming immersed in my public-school music program. If not for the visual prominence of Viola Smith on national TV, I cannot say where I might have wound up in the world of percussion or music business. Seeing her on national TV also brought my parents on board in support of my enthusiasm for drumming. Watching then and now, one can hear a level of musicianship in her solos that are clearly developed and strongly supported by an amazing technical facility, a warmth, a joy, and an integrity that is so often lacking in our modern-day soloing.”
In 2000, Viola was featured in a New York Times article, “When Women Called the Tunes; Rediscovering the Players Who Kept Things Swinging After the Men Went to War.” That same year she was one of eight musicians honored at Lincoln Center in a tribute to women in jazz.
Smith moved from New York City, where she had lived for almost seven decades, to Costa Mesa, California in 2012, where she lived in a Christian community called the Piecemakers. She also played in the Huntington Beach-based band “Forever Young,” which billed itself as “America’s Oldest Act of Professional Entertainers.”
In 2013, Local 802 — the Los Angeles chapter of the American Federation of Musicians — featured Viola in their Allegro publication. “As the oldest member of Local 802, Viola Smith has an important lesson to teach all of us: never lose your groove!” She joined their local back in 1942 when she was recording and performing in California.
Local 802 recording rep Bob Pawlo asked Viola what advice she would give to young musicians, especially women, today. “They have a clear-cut road ahead of them now,” she responded a decade ago. “There are fewer obstacles. Girl musicians used to have trouble getting any work at all. You had to prove yourself. You had to be heard, but how could you be heard if nobody gives you a chance to be heard? This was the situation for years and years.”
Viola continued, “My work came to me very naturally because the Spitalny orchestra needed a girl drummer; there weren’t many bands looking for a girl drummer. I had a better deal than most because I always had a job. But this all happened naturally because I came from the family orchestra.”
Viola Smith, originally billed as the “fastest girl drummer in the world” was now considered the “world’s oldest drummer.” She passed away in Costa Mesa on October 21, 2020, just shy of her 108th birthday, and was featured on CBS Sunday Morning’s 2020 “Hail and Farewell” segment, immediately following Rush drummer Neil Peart. www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpYTYg8ftPo (12:34–13:10)
DownBeat magazine’s obituary called Viola “a trailblazer known for her pyrotechnics on stage, where she exploded with a ferocity that belied her diminutive stature. Smith was an equally fierce proponent of women’s rights in the male-dominated world of swing-era jazz.”
Dame Evelyn called Viola “an innovative and influential American drum set player with incredible accomplishments over a remarkably long career.”
Annie Stevens recognized Viola’s signature drum set. “This kind of innovation, in addition to her musical genius behind the drums, is what made an outstanding and long-lasting impact on our artform. It isn’t just the fact that she was holding her own as a female musician, but that she was pushing the envelope and introducing the percussive arts to new ideas.”
Stonefelt summed up Smith’s amazing talents: “Viola said that she led a charmed life. Every interview or performance seems to exhibit that joie de vivre.”