Pioneering drummer Viola Smith has died, aged 107

Pioneering drummer Viola Smith has passed away aged 107, just weeks before her 108th birthday. Born Viola Schmitz on November 29, 1912, Viola was a groundbreaking swing, big band and symphonic drummer, known for her use of a giant drum set - often credited as the inspiration for Louie Bellson's use of double-bass drums -  as well as becoming one of, if not the first, female drummers in popular music. Viola died on October 21.

Viola took-up drumming as a teenager in Wisconsin when her father assembled the Schmitz Sisters Family Orchestra with his eight daughters. Viola told DrumTalkTV in 2017, “There were 10 of us, eight of us were in the orchestra. We all played the piano, we had two pianos and an organ at home, my two brothers were practicing the piano and overheard my dad say he was going to have an all-girl orchestra. Well, when they heard that, that was the end of the practicing [for them], no more piano from then on at all!. 

“I couldn’t have wished for anything better, see, I was the sixth [daughter]. The older ones got instruments like the piano and the violin, then saxophone and then came the trumpet and the trombone. My dad said “Now, we need a drummer!”. Thank god, I was it.”

“We had a first-cousin who was a professional drummer living nearby, so he’s the one who got me started the right way. But as we travelled in the early years, we would play the theatres - they were RKO vaudeville circuits during school vacations. There, the drummers in the pit, I’d take lessons and pay them. Each booking was a week long and I’d get my lessons from these drummers."

In 1938, Viola would form The Coquettes, another all-female orchestra with her sister (and Schmitz Sisters bassist), Mildred. Viola made the move to New York in 1942 after mildred got married, and it was here that she would begin studying under the legendary Billy Gladstone. In the same year, Viola wrote the now-famous article ‘Give Girl Musicians A Break!’ for Down Beat magazine.

With her writing, Viola pulled no punches, reasoning “Why not let the girls play in the big bands? 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? I personally know at least a dozen girl musicians who are qualified to take a place in the section of any outstanding dance band you can name.”  

She continued, “We girls have as much stamina as men. There are many girl trumpet players, girl saxophonists and girl drummers who can stand the grind of long tours and exacting one-night stands. The girls of today are not the helpless creatures of an earlier generation."

“In addition, there are some girl musicians who are as much the masters of their instruments as are male musicians. They can improvise; their solos are well-defined and thought-provoking and show unlimited imagination." 

"The idea of girls being able to play only legitimately is a worn-out myth now. There are “hep girls” who can sit in any jam session and hold their own.” Viola ended her article with a masterfully simple and provocation, instructing bandleaders to “Think it over, boys."

WFL Drum Co.

Viola went on to secure endorsements with major drum brands including Zildjian cymbals, Ludwig and WFL Drum Co. (Image credit: WFL Drum Co.)

Viola would go on to achieve a huge amount of success, receiving endorsements with Zildjian, Ludwig and WFL Drum Co. She secured a scholarship at Juliard and joining yet-another all-female orchestra, this time, Phil Spitalny’s Hour Of Charm orchestra. 

With the Hour Of Charm, she would find commercial success, which led to her performing with the NBC Symphony Orchestra as well as the National Symphony Orchestra with whom Viola recorded soundtracks for the films, When Johnny Comes Marching Home and Here Come the Co-Eds. Her continued success also saw her perform with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb, as well as the inauguration of 33rd US president, Harry Truman in 1949.

Viola’s career continued after Hour Of Charm disbanded, with her leading her own band, Viola and her Seventeen Drums as well as joining the Kit Kat band. Viola continued to play long after her 100th birthday around her final home town of Costa Mesa, California, as well as as part of the Forever Young Band: America’s Oldest Act of Professional Entertainers. 

Stuart Williams

I'm a freelance member of the MusicRadar team, specialising in drum news, interviews and reviews. I formerly edited Rhythm and Total Guitar here in the UK and have been playing drums for more than 25 years (my arms are very tired). When I'm not working on the site, I can be found on my electronic kit at home, or gigging and depping in function bands and the odd original project.