The musicians rejoice! Legendary percussionist Viola Smith may have discovered the secret to a fully satisfied, productive and healthy life: both enthusiastic drumming and moderate consumption of good wine. Currently aged 106 and still drumming in a Costa Mesa band called Forever Young Band until recently: America’s Oldest Act of Professional Entertainers, Smith’s extraordinarily long career has spanned the length and breadth of modern music from jazz to swing, rock n’roll and above. Viola Schmitz was born on November 29, 1912, she was one of ten children from Mount Calvary, Wisconsin. The whole family learned piano, and the Smith Sisters Orchestra was formed by her dad with Viola and her six sisters in the 1920s.
Viola was first widely noticed when the sisters performed on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, a 1930s radio version of America’s Got Talent. She and her saxophonist sister Mildred founded an all-girl band named The Coquettes in 1938, they played until Mildred married in 1942. The Coquettes is maybe what Smith is better known for, with the all-girl swing band scaling various renowned swing tunes during the early days of the war.
Along with her excellent musicianship, Viola’s ability to read music fluently was such that she later played with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, one of the day’s top orchestras. Since Viola performed in 1949 for the inauguration of President Harry Truman, she founded her band called “Viola and Her Seventeen Drums.” Then Viola opened her eyes to Broadway, where she played in Cabaret’s original production.
Earlier this year she was explaining to Dan Barret about her past and fondly remembered several of the many famous artists she worked with. Viola also remembered her article titled “Give Girl Musicians A Break!” in Down Beat magazine.” she wrote is during the peak of World War Two. Having always standing beside women Viola has actively campaigned for groups who lost male performers to the war in Europe to give women players the chance to substitute them. The article prompted a national debate around female musicians at the time and the misconceptions some people had about them.
About her durability, she clarified that she feels that the full-body drumming workout, as well as the occasional tipple, have allowed her to be fit and healthy.
“I’m a drinker, but always in moderation,“ Viola explained in the interview. “Even Dad: he had a tavern in his nightclub in Wisconsin. He’d even bring kids in the family wine. So, we’d have wine (with) dinner. I still drink wine now.”
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