In the 1930s, Viola Smith was billed as the “world's fastest girl drummer,” and she went on to see other female drummers follow her trailblazing path over the next nine decades.
A native of Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, near Fond Du Lac, died Oct. 21 in her sleep at her home in Costa Mesa, California, according to The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Her 108th birthday would have been next month.
“I am very, very thankful that I’m accepted as a girl drummer,” Smith said in a video interview with Tom Tom Magazine in 2012. “One time there was no such thing.”
Smith got her start in the late 20s playing in her family band, the Schmitz Sisters Family Orchestra, with five older sisters.
“(My sisters) had the rest of the instruments, and by the time there was a sixth one added to the family orchestra, my dad decided it should be drums which was great for me. What better instrument to play than the drums,” Smith told Tom Tom.
“It was all practice, practice, practice in my childhood,” Smith said. “Every school vacation, we practiced two hours a day. Dad say we cannot waste children’s energies on anything but music, music, music.”
The practice paid off, with the family orchestra playing gigs around the region before Smith and a sister formed the Coquettes, an all-female orchestra, in 1938. They traveled the country for four years; on stage, Smith dazzled audiences from behind a massive set that included two double bass drums.
In 1940, Smith appeared on the cover of Billboard magazine. The following year, she wrote an editorial for Down Beat magazine, “Give Girl Musicians a Break!”
“In these times of national emergency, many of the star instrumentalists of the big name bands are being drafted,” 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 place? … Think it over, boys.”
In 1942, the Coquettes ended and Smith settled in New York. Famed Radio City Music Hall percussionist Billy Gladstone gave her lessons and made her a custom drum set. She studied timpani one summer at Juilliard and played in the NBC orchestra.
Smith played drums alongside Billie Holiday, in the 1945 Abbott & Costello film “Here Come the Co-Eds,” five times on "The Ed Sullivan Show,” and at President Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1949. She told Tom Tom the highlight of her music career was playing in the Kit Kat Band in the original Broadway production of “Cabaret” in 1966.
Earlier this year, Smith was inducted into the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Hall of Fame. Because of the pandemic, the ceremony, which will celebrate Smith’s accomplishments, will now take place at Turner Hall Ballroom in Milwaukee on May 16.
“I really had a charmed life. I can’t believe it,” Smith told Tom Tom. “Unless people call drumming work, then I worked hard in my life.”