Viola Smith, the swing drummer renowned as “the fastest girl drummer in the world,” died on Wednesday, October 21 at 107 years old. She was born Viola Schmitz in 1912 in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin. Her nephew, Dennis Bartash, reported that she died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at her home in Costa Mesa, California.
In an interview with Tom Tom Magazine shortly after her 100th birthday, she talked about her experience as a professional drummer. She was the sixth daughter in a family of musicians, and was raised to be a drummer since her older siblings were occupied with different instruments.
Radio City Music Hall drummer Billy Gladstone took over as her teacher after seeing one of her performances, and designed drums for her. She became known for her twelve-drum kit and quick style of playing, and began performing as the drummer for all-female big band group Frances Caroll & Her Coquettes.
Her 1942 article in DownBeat magazine called “Give Girl Musicians a Break!” encouraged dance bands to hire female talent during the war. In 1949, she played in Harry Truman’s presidential inauguration as part of Phil Spitalny’s “Hour of Charm” all-girl orchestra. Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman’s orchestras were the other musical guests at the occasion. With Hour of Charm, she also soundtracked two movies, Charles Lamont’s When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1942) and Abbot & Costello comedy Here Come the Co-Eds (1945).
She also played drums on stage for the original Broadway musical production of Cabaret as a member of the Kit Kat nightclub band. In the Tom Tom interview, she talked about seeing a lot of celebrities in the front rows and said that playing in Cabaret was the highlight of her life.
There were many more notable performances throughout her career. She drummed for big names including Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Hope and Chick Webb, as well as with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. She also made several appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“I’m really very thankful that I am accepted as a drummer, a girl drummer. At one time, there was no such thing,” she said about the outpouring of birthday wishes she saw on her 100th birthday, “…I really had a charmed life. Unless people call drumming work, then I had worked hard in my life.”