On November 29, 2012, we celebrated the 100th birthday of Viola Smith. Anyone who watched entertainment reels in the 1930s and '40s might know Viola. A musical pioneer, she was one of the first female professional drummers, gaining popularity during World War II.
Viola was born in Mount Calvary, WI, the 8th in a line of 10 children; she and all her siblings were encouraged to be musical by her father, who put together an orchestra consisting of the eight sisters. Her family owned one of Mount Calvary's first restaurant/dance halls in the early 1900’s and not only did the girls perform there, it was one of the stops for many first rate musicians and Viola got front row seats and learned from the best. By the time she was 12, her dad had gotten permission from the local union for the underage girls to travel the circuit. The Schmitz Sisters (later becoming the Smith Sisters) fast became a favorite on the RKO circuit, even sharing the bill with The Andrews Sisters.
From 1938 to 1941 Viola flourished in a highly acclaimed all female band that she and her sister Mildred organized, called The Coquettes. The Coquettes were so successful, and she as their drummer so popular, that Viola and her drum set graced the cover of Billboard Magazine on 24 February 1940. When the group disbanded, in 1942, Viola accepted an invitation to become the drummer of an affluent WWII era band, Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm Orchestra – one of the few all girl bands to ever record in those days. With an emphasis on both glamorous style and musical substance, Viola remained with the orchestra until 1954.
During those years, Viola also found herself performing in feature films with Abbott & Costello and Allan Jones, as the percussionist with the National Symphony Orchestra, performing with Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald, performing her own “Drum Concertos”, and even turning down dates with Frank Sinatra on more than one occasion! Rather than join Woody Herman’s big band, Viola preferred to work as a regular drummer with a band, and through the 60’s Viola’s career turned to Broadway, where she was a member of the “Kit Kat Club’s” all girl band in the show Cabaret with Joel Grey.
In 1942, Viola was known as the “Female Gene Krupa” for the way she would hurl her drumstick onto her drum, then jump up in the air and catch it as it bounced. She was also billed as America’s “fastest girl drummer” and the “famous girl drummer”. But being a musician in an all girl band in those days was considered only a “temporary” job – female musicians were “swing shift Maisies”, like Rosie the Riveter – substitutes for the real thing – men. While the men were at war, they filled in. The all girl bands were considered patriotic, temporary musical groups meant to entertain the soldiers. Said Viola, ''The men felt like: Girl musicians, what are they doing on the road? It's a male job.''
Viola says that female drummers today have it much easier. Though she just about had the field to herself for a while, she, along with innumerable female musicians of the WWII era helped to forge a remarkable legacy. "Before World War II there was great prejudice," Viola said. "The war overcame it to an extent. They could finally see what girl musicians could do. When World War II broke out, female musicians started to be taken more seriously. They were finally given a chance."
Given a chance in part because just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Viola published an article in Down Beat Magazine, called ''Give Girl Musicians a Break!'' She wrote, “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 place?'' She challenged perceptions about the true ability of women musicians. This caused quite a ruckus and gave women everywhere the courage to not only be seen but to be heard!
Viola never married; instead she gave her life and love to music and to the people who played it. Until recently she taught drums, and she still works part time at a store in Costa Mesa, CA - where today, they are throwing quite a birthday bash for her.
We were thrilled this past week, to be able to ask this incredible woman a few questions of our own:
You got your musical start playing in an orchestra with your seven sisters – how did you become the drummer. Did you ask to play drums, or was it the instrument that was assigned to you by your father?
The drum was the logical sixth instrument to be added to the orchestra. I was the sixth girl. My dad dictated the choice of instruments in the family. He had had an orchestra (called “band” in those days) before he was married – playing the cornet which is a short trumpet.
How did you learn to play? Were you self taught, or did you take lessons?
A professional drummer friend of the family helped me with the earliest lessons. Later, pit – band – theatre – orchestra – drummers gave me lessons. Still later, I studied with Ted Reed in his NY Studio and with Billy Gladstone at Radio City Music Hall. I had a scholarship to Juilliard School of Music and Saul Goodman was my timpani teacher there. Karl Glassman, Timpanist with the NBC Symphony Orchestra while Toscanini was Conductor, also was a teacher.
How did you get the title “Fastest Girl Drummer”? Was there a competition?
Various critics called me the “the country’s fastest girl drummer.”
You were a Zildjian Endorser back in the 40’s, and even today, your picture hangs here on our Wall of Fame. How did you choose your cymbals then? Did you meet Avedis and Armand Zildjian, or ever visit the factory near Boston?
Bill Mather who owned New York’s largest drum shop helped me choose Zildjian Cymbals. Bill and I attended a dinner party given by Armand Zildjian in a New York restaurant. At another time, we accepted an invitation to visit with the Zildjian family in Quincy, MA for a weekend but I unfortunately had to cancel.
You wrote a pretty controversial editorial to Down Beat Magazine in the 40’s about the existence of "hep girls”," female jazz musicians who could sit in any jam session and hold their own. You asked readers to “give girl musicians a break”. A firestorm of letters-to-the-editor ensued, debating the topic: Can women play jazz? What inspired you to write that editorial?
My Down Beat article “Give Girl Musicians a Break” was a timely question to be addressed as the male musicians were leaving orchestras in droves to join the Army, Navy and Marines. I was asked to write the article on behalf of the many capable girl musicians who were out of work.
You were called “The Female Gene Krupa”. How did Gene feel about that? How were you treated by your male counterparts of the day?
When I met Gene Krupa several times he didn’t comment on “the female Gene Krupa”. He said he had never heard me play. (On Phil Spitalny records I played the Vibraphone and Timpani.) Male musicians treated me as “one of them.”
On November 29th, you will be 100 years old – Congratulations! Do you think playing drums has attributed to your longevity?
Thank you. I definitely think that the exercise involved in drumming contributes to longevity. Spending two summers in Europe in 1942 and ‘44 started the wine habit (2 glasses with dinner). Also hearing about a wine drinking community in Southern France where the longevity far exceeds that of the country as a whole. Thirdly, reading all of Adele Davis’ books over several decades ago, on a recipe for a long life. (Ironically she died of cancer at age 70!!!)
Happy Birthday Viola!