Perhaps the oldest living drummer today is the female phenom Viola Smith. Starting out in her family’s Smith Sisters Orchestra and later playing in the all-star female band The Coquettes, Viola made a name for herself as not only the best female drummer, but one of the best drummers of her time, period. Now she is 106 and was still actively drumming in a band called the Forever Young Band. Viola’s extraordinarily long career has spanned the entire length of modern music from swing, to jazz, to rock n’ roll.
During World War 2 Viola wrote a controversial article in Down Beat magazine titled, “Give Girl Musicians a Break!” Always being an activist for women musicians Viola challenged bands to replace their missing musicians who went off to war with females. She argued, “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?” The article initiated a nationwide discussion about the role of women in the music industry and the prejudice that they faced at the time. Viola continued to campaign for women musicians throughout her career. Her tenacity was an inspiration to many women who stood up for themselves.
Viola commented on the dilemma that faced females, “Girl musicians used to have trouble getting any work at all. You had to prove yourself. You had to be heard, but how could you be heard if nobody gives you a chance to be heard? This was the situation for years and years. I always had a job, like the Coquettes, which was an offshoot of the family orchestra. We had some very important dates for the band in big theatres around the country. But this all happened naturally because I came from the family orchestra. The work was just laid out for me. I didn’t fight for it. But all the girl musicians outside of that had a problem, a real problem.”