The music world lost a legend on Oct. 21.
Viola Smith passed away at her home in Costa Mesa, California at the age of 107. She was one of the first professional female drummers, playing swing and jazz in big bands and orchestras.
A prolific and hardworking musician, Viola Smith got her start in her family’s orchestra comprised of her and her seven sisters. Because she was a younger sibling, most of the other instruments were taken, so it was decided that Smith would play the drums.
“This was great for me! What better instrument to play than the drums?” she said in an interview with Tom Tom in 2013.
Born in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin on Nov. 29, 1912, Smith joked in the Tom Tom interview, “I planned my escape once I figured out where I was!”
After the Schmitz Sisters Family Orchestra (later the Smith Sisters Orchestra) disbanded due to the sisters getting married and starting families, Viola Smith and her sister Mildred started a new all-female swing band called the Coquettes. They enlisted the talented and beautiful Frances Carroll as the band leader. The Coquettes with Smith as its drummer were so popular that Smith and her drums graced the cover of Billboard Magazine in 1940.
Viola Smith also played in Ada Leonard’s All-Girl Orchestra and Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm, eventually moving to New York City. She studied the timpani at Juilliard and played for the NBC Symphony Orchestra. She performed in the Albert and Costello movie Here Come the Co-eds and recorded music for the film, Johnny Comes Marching Home with the National Symphony Orchestra. During this time, she shared a stage with Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb. In 1949, Smith performed at President Truman’s inauguration. Among all these other career highlights, she also played on the Ed Sullivan show five times.
In 2014, writer and musician Angela Smith released a book called Women Drummers which she dedicated to Viola Smith. The two got to know each other very well during the interviews for the book and Angela says they became like family.
“She was just so full of life,” Angela Smith said. “The very first time I met her, I took a picture of her. And she said, ‘I need to straighten out my boobs!’” Angela remembers with a laugh. “I thought, this is a badass lady and I love her. It was Viola Smith. That was her personality. The people she lived with said that was the thing they were going to miss most about her—was her wit, her sense of humor, and her love of life.”
In 1942, Viola Smith wrote an article in Down Beat Magazine called “Give Girl Musicians a Break!” At the time, men were being sent overseas to fight fascism in World War II, and women were taking on more jobs traditionally held by men.
Viola Smith wrote that “this 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 … There are some girl musicians who are as much the masters of their instruments as are male musicians.”
Letters to the editor poured in as people debated the merits and abilities of female musicians.
“She truly paved the way,” said Angela Smith. “Up until that time that she wrote that editorial in Down Beat Magazine in 1942, women musicians were considered novelties. They weren’t taken seriously. Only men were taken seriously as viable musicians, and she changed that whole perspective by saying that ‘hep’ women could sit in any jam session and hold their own. It was really amazing, after she wrote that, the response was overwhelming. People were either adamantly opposed to it or very supportive of it, and it didn’t fall along gender lines, either. There were as many women opposed to women being recognized as musicians. And there were men who thought, yeah, maybe it is time for women to be recognized.”
In the swing and big band era, Viola Smith was billed as the “world’s fastest girl drummer” and the “female Gene Krupa.”
“During our last conversation that we had on her 107th birthday, she was happy and had just finished eating a big piece of cake and was having her nightly glass of red wine, which she said was a big part of her longevity,” Angela Smith remembered. “I told her I was starting a campaign to have Gene Krupa recognized as the ‘male Viola Smith.’ I’m tired of hearing her being called the ‘female Gene Krupa.’ She was just delighted by that. She started saying it. ‘Gene Krupa is the male Viola Smith.’”
In the 1960s, Viola Smith joined the original Broadway cast of Cabaret, as a drummer in the Kit Kat band. In the early ’70s, she retired from her professional career. She eventually moved to Costa Mesa, California in the 90s and lived on a commune called the Piecemakers that ran a craft shop.
“Everybody on the commune took care of each other,” Angela Smith said. “When I talked to her on her last birthday, she had just come home from taking inventory at the store. She loved working. The first day I interviewed her, she was 100 years old, and she was teaching drum lessons. She was trying to teach someone drum rolls for rock ‘n’ roll and for classical.”
Although Viola Smith faced misogyny and hardships in her career, she persevered. According to Angela Smith, she was very humble and grateful for her start in life and the opportunities she enjoyed.
“She always felt that she was privileged because she grew up in a home where her father encouraged the girls to excel and to be good musicians,” Angela Smith said. “And because he owned that theater that had all these celebrities come through and really great musicians came through. And he gave his daughters the chance to meet these people. She felt she started from a place of privilege and she acknowledged that many women did not have that.”
In the last days of Viola Smith’s life, she held onto the Women Drummers book and would ask whoever was in the room to read to her from it.
“I’d like to think that everybody who was mentioned in that book, all the women musicians, and that includes Mindy and everybody at Tom Tom Magazine, everybody was with her when her heart took those last beats on Earth,” Angela Smith said.
When professional drummer and drum teacher Jyn Yates (who is on the cover of Women Drummers) heard the story, she said that she got cold chills and started crying. “I literally got a spiritual rush through my body,” Yates said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It was like the holy spirit entered my body and went from my feet up through my crown chakra and out the top. I had cold chills all over my entire body. I honestly could not believe it. I mean, of all things that she could have died doing, she was holding the book and asking people to read it to her. That was remarkable.”
Soon after Viola Smith passed away, social media posts and articles sprouted up commemorating the trail-blazing musician. Carla Azar, drummer for Autolux and Jack White, posted on Instagram:
“For me, Viola was (and is) the epitome of feminism in its most honest form—proving her undeniable equality through her work and perseverance, which speaks louder than words. And then of course doing this with the most powerful instrument in the world.”
Viola Smith meant so much to so many people. Tammy Mitchell-Woods, a professional drummer and the founder of the Facebook group Drummergirls United, met her three years ago and had lunch with her.
“We signed a pair of sticks for each other,” said Mitchell-Woods. “She told me a ton of stories about all of her travels as a drummer and playing in big bands, playing for presidents, playing in movies, and everything that entailed. She was amazing as a drummer and so forward thinking when it came to how she set up her kit. Truly revolutionary. She was a fascinating woman and will always be my friend and hero. I was crushed when I found out that she passed but I know that she had a very happy, long, and full life. She knows that she is very loved and looked up to as a pioneer for female drummers all over the world.”
Viola has been inspiring drummers, especially female drummers, for decades. Claudia Paige, named by Sweden Rock Magazine and Sister Rock as one of the 25 best female drummers in the world, wrote to Tom Tom via email:
“I was a teenager when I first saw Viola Smith in the 1940s movie Here comes the Co-Eds.Those drums on either side of her! Wow! Twelve in total. I counted. I already loved the feel of Gene Krupa, but to see a woman so driven and really, really good, cemented my drive to continue the drums. I was born in 1962 and started the drums in the summer of ’69 at the age of seven. Like many female drummers, we were told drumming is for boys only, you will never drum like a boy. Why don’t you just quit? I did run home a few times from school in tears but I was driven. Lucky for me, I had support from my mom and grandparents who bought me a drum set at eight. Plus I was good and was invited to be in the high school marching band at the age of 12. Not popular with the boys. Viola gave us all the road to drum. I never met Viola Smith in person, but I will keep the beat going for her.”
Jyn Yates feels similarly inspired.
“For women, I don’t think we’d be doing what we do right now if it weren’t for her,” said Yates. “She was doing it when women were not supposed to be doing that. They were supposed to be in the home cooking for the men. She was bucking tradition and taking the heat for all of us so that we can do what we do. I can’t imagine what she had to deal with. I highly, highly look up to her.”
Sarah Hagan, former director of artist relations worldwide at Avedis Zildjian Company, wrote Tom Tom this via email:
“I was always amazed by the story of Viola Smith. When I worked at Zildjian I would pass her photo on the Wall of Fame and she was the only female on that section of the wall (early 1900s-1960s). She not only played drums, but she was very vocal about female musicians being as talented as male musicians. Her playing style and her unique setup influenced future generations of male and female drummers, and she blazed a trail for others to come.”
Viola Smith will be missed but not forgotten. Please write to us or post on social media and let us know how she has inspired you.
—Rebecca DeRosa is a writer living in the Catskills and is a drummer in the band Fisty.