Viola Smith – Best Female Drummer Ever?
Born in November 1912 Viola Amith is an American drummer best known for her work in orchestras, swing bands, and popular music in the 1930s and 1940s. She was one of the first professional female drummers. In the 1920s and 1930s, Viola played in the Schmidt Sisters, a family orchestra that her father founded in Wisconsin. According to her nephew, Dennis Bartash, playing with her sisters on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour radio show in the 1930s was her big break. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Smith played in the Coquettes, an all-female orchestra, along with her sister, Mildred Bartash who played the clarinet and the saxophone.
Viola joined Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm, a commercially-successful all-girl orchestra, in 1942. She played with the Kit Kat Band, which was part of the original 1960’s Broadway production of Cabaret. Allegro Magazine Volume 113 Number 10 November 2013 featured Viola in an article A Century of Swing ‘Never lose your groove!
She was born 80 years too early. Back in the 1930s, female drummer Viola Smith had chops that could match any man. In all honesty, she had more skill than most modern drummers have today. In this televised 1939 performance, Smith leads her all-female band, the Coquettes, in one of the most surreal videos you’ll ever see.
First off, let’s talk about her kit. The thing looks like it was teleported straight from outer space. The kit seems to be mostly made of toms and cymbals, with a xylophone and timpani added in as well. Using temp mallets, she absolutely owns that kit; one reason she was dubbed ‘America’s Fastest Girl Drummer’ in a 1939 press photo.
As the original “hep girl,” she pioneered generations of female percussionists, writing a controversial article for Down Beat Magazine called “Give Girl Musicians a Break” in the 1940s. Smith also holds the distinction of being Zildjian‘s longest running endorser.
Viola Smith will celebrate her 102th birthday on Nov. 29. And guess what? She still plays the drums; an art form that she’s attributed to her life’s longevity.
Watch Viola Smith’s incredible performance of ‘Snake Charmer’ with the Coquettes above!