“Give Girl Musicians a Break!”
Viola Smith, born November 29, 1912, in Mount Calvary, WI, is an American drummer, best known for her work with The Coquettes (1939-1941), an all-girl orchestra, and for using more than 12 drums in her trap set, adding tom toms on her right and left side.
Viola Smith was one of eight girls born to a family where her father ran a dance hall. Each sister learned an instrument; Viola learned the drums. By the time Viola was 12 her family band, the Smith Sisters, was traveling the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) circuit of vaudeville and movie theaters, sharing the bill with the Andrews Sisters. After her sisters married and moved on, Viola, along with her sister Mildred, created an all-female orchestra, The Coquettes, for the Major Bowes radio show, an amateur talent show.
Woody Herman offered her a job as a featured act in his Thundering Herd, but she turned him down to stay with the Coquettes.
Viola, who played the drums until she was 63, played on the radio show, Hour of Charm, and went on to play on Broadway (New York City) for four years as the drummer with the “Kit Kat Band,” part of the original production of “Cabaret.” She also performed her own “Drum Concertos” with Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald, and even turned down gigs with Frank Sinatra on several occasions. As a percussionist with the National Symphony Orchestra, Smith performed in films with Abbott & Costello (Here Come the Co-Eds) and Allan Jones,
Smith’s showmanship and entertainment flair quickly made her known as the “Female Gene Krupa” — hurling her drumstick onto the drums, then jumping up in the air to catch. Throughout the 1940s she was billed as America’s “fastest girl drummer” and the “famous girl drummer.”
Being in an all girl band in the 40s was considered a “temporary” job — female musicians during World War II were “swing shift Maisies,” like Rosie the Riveter — substitutes for the real thing – men. The all girl bands were considered patriotic, temporary musical groups meant to entertain the soldiers. In an effort to encourage more bands to hire female musicians, Viola wrote an article for a 1941 edition of Down Beatmagazine entitled “Give Girl Musicians a Break!” … and history shows that it worked.
In 1949, Smith played at the inauguration celebration of President Harry S. Truman in Washington, D.C.
Smith was a Ludwig endorser for many years, appearing in numerous Ludwig Drum Company catalogs.
Viola Smith celebrated her 100th birthday on November 29, 2012. She is recognized as one of the first professional female drummers in history.