Viola Smith

Born in 1912 in Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin, Viola Smith was one of the first professional female drummers in America. She was the 6th child in a musical family (she had seven sisters and two brothers), who formed the “Schmitz Sisters Orchestra.” Since her sisters already had the trombone, vibraphone, trumpet, saxophone, violin, piano, and bass sax covered, her father decided she should play drums. [1] She was delighted because as she says, “what better instrument to play than the drums?” In an interview, Viola recalls the encouragement of her father: “Dad always said, we cannot waste children’s energies on anything but music. Music, music, music, that’s all he believed in, which was fortunate for us, we were very happy to hear that.” Viola studied drums with several pit band leaders and eventually with Billy Gladstone and had a scholarship to Julliard for a summer, playing timpani. She soon joined Frances Carroll and Her Coquettes and went on the road. [2] Dig this video clip of her incredible playing with The Coquettes:

After her sisters all got married, she decided she was tired of being on the road, so she moved to New York to begin working there as a musician. She was often referred to as “The Female Gene Krupa” or the “fastest girl drummer.” [2] She was on the cover of Billboard magazine in 1940, published an article in DownBeat magazine advocating for top-notch female musicians titled “Give Girl Musicians a Break!” played at the inauguration of President Harry S. Truman, and played drums in Abbot & Costello film, “Here Come the Co-Eds,” among many other accomplishments. In the 1960s, Viola played drums with the Kit Kat Band in the Broadway production of “Cabaret.” [3]

In 2016, she was reported to still be actively drumming at 104 years old. She’s now 106, and she may just be the oldest working musician alive today. What an inspiration! Here’s a short playlist featuring interviews with Ms. Smith and some of her music.

(Re)sources

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Viola Smith,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Viola_Smith&oldid=878815376 (accessed January 19, 2019).

[2] Viola Smith. “Viola Smith: America’s Original Hep Girl on Tom Tom TV.” Directed, shot and edited by: Rhianne Paz Bergado. (https://youtu.be/jlzCWHw7ZW8).

[3] “Viola Smith, World’s Oldest Renown Musician, Turns 106.” The Future Heart. https://thefutureheart.com/2018/11/29/viola-smith-oldest-drummer-professional-musician/

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