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In Memoriam: Viola Smith

Nov 16, 2020, 14:07 PM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Viola Smith, once billed as “the fastest girl drummer in the world,” died on October 21, 2020, at age 107.

From 1938–41, she was featured with the Coquettes, an “all-girl” big band that developed a national following. Her showcase piece was “The Snake Charmer,” in which she performed drumming pyrotechnics on a 12-piece drum set. The Coquettes evolved from the remnants of Smith’s Wisconsin family’s all-female band, in which she was one of eight musical sisters. 

When she found it difficult to lead the group from behind the drums, she hired singer and dancer Frances Carroll to conduct the band. The band, who became known as Frances Carroll & the Coquettes, played at nightclubs and dance halls and appeared in several short films and on the cover of Billboard magazine before dissolving.

Smith then moved to New York and won a summer scholarship to study timpani at the Juilliard School. She also sat in with bands at New York’s Paramount Theater after many male drummers of the day were drafted into military service for World War II. According to The Washington Post, she caused a stir with her 1942 essay in DownBeat magazine titled “Give Girl Musicians a Break!,” in which she called on prominent big-band leaders to hire more women. With men away at war, she wrote, “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? … Girls work right along beside men in the factories, in the offices… So why not in dance bands? In addition, there are some girl musicians who are as much the masters of their instruments as male musicians. Think it over, boys.”

Soon she was playing in Phil Spitalny’s all-girl band. The group, with whom she played for a dozen years, was featured on Spitalny’s Hour of Charm radio show and in two movies, When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1942) and the Abbott & Costello comedy Here Come the Co-Eds (1945). Spitalny's group was one of many all-girl big bands, such as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, that peaked in the early 1940s, but faded from the scene when men returned from WWII.

Smith later was a member of the Kit Kat Band jazz quartet featured in the musical Cabaret, which ran on Broadway from 1966–69 and then toured nationally. She retired a few years later but occasionally played with a California ensemble called the Forever Young Band (not to be confused with a Neil Young tribute band of the same name), which billed itself as “America’s Oldest Act of Professional Entertainers.”

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