My mother recalls the first time she saw The Carpenters, one of her favourite bands, on TV. “The woman in the band plays the drums. Can you imagine?”
In her mind and in the mind of many, many others back then–we’re talking the early 70s here–playing the drums was, well, unladylike, what with the necessary spreading of the legs while wearing (obviously) a dress and with the necessary physical effort required. “She must get so sweaty,” said my mom.
This was the prevailing attitude regarding women playing drums. It just wasn’t done. It took the 70s punk revolution and rock groups like The Runaways to finally break through that silly notion that “girls can’t play drums.”
But long before my mom saw Karen Carpenter do her thing, there was Viola Smith. Back in the 1930s, she was a big-band drummer, playing what was for the time a giant kit. People would have looked upon her set-up in much the same way we’d gawk at what Neil Peart played decades later.
Viola’s kit featured between 12 and 17 pieces, including two giant toms on either side of the kit at shoulder height along with a xylophone and a variety of other percussion instruments. Her main gig was with the Coquettes, an all-female big band that existed from 1938 to 1941. Here’s an example of what Viola could do.
She was genuinely good. A reviewer once described her as “pulchritudinous miss who so adeptly maneuvers the drums and cymbals.” She was promoted as “the fastest girl drummer in the world.” Frank Sinatra was an admirer.
Naturally, there were those who thought that women couldn’t and shouldn’t do such things. In 1942, she wrote an article in the jazz magazine DownBeat entitled “Give Girl Musicians a Break!” With so many men off to war, why shouldn’t the big-band types still working hire women to fill those vacancies? I quote: “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? . . . Girls work right along beside men in the factories, in the offices. . . . So why not in dance bands? In addition, there are some girl musicians who are as much the masters of their instruments as male musicians…Think it over, boys.”
Smith continued to find work, including in an Abbott and Costello movie called Here Come the Co-Eds.
More jobs followed until Viola retired in the early 70s, although she occasionally appeared with a band called the Forever Young Band. They called themselves America’s Oldest Act of Professional Entertainers.”
Viola died last week at the age of 107.
If you want to learn more about her, try these articles from The Washington Post and The Guardian.