Ocie Lee Smith was born in Mansfield, Louisiana in 1932. He grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas before moving to Los Angeles with his mother after his parents split up. Not many of our favorite artists have a degree in psychology, but Smith got one from Southern University, and then he joined the Air Force. His service took him all over the world, and it was during this time that Smith’s interest in music found him entering talent contests.
Smith was discharged from the Air Force in 1955. Instead of pursuing a career in psychology, he started playing jazz to pay the bills. His first big gig was working with Sy Oliver’s band. That led to an appearance on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, and that, in turn, led to a record deal with Cadence Records.
In December, 1955, Cadence released Smith’s cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” It wasn’t a hit, but MGM Records liked it enough to sign Smith to a new record deal. He released three singles for the label, but none of them made a dent.
From 1961-1965 Smith held down a prestigious gig as the vocalist in the Count Basie Orchestra. He kept releasing solo singles during this time, for a variety of labels, but nothing got any traction. He was recording for Columbia Records in 1968, but the company was about to drop him. Suddenly, Smith scored an unexpected Top 40 hit with something called “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp.”
Around that time, Ocie became O.C. He began work on an album called Hickory Holler Revisited at Columbia Studios in L.A. The first single from the album was something called “Main Street Mission” which, it was hoped, would be a follow-up hit for Smith. But a D.J. in Detroit preferred one of the other album cuts, and played it on his show one morning. The audience reaction was powerful and immediate. Calls were made to Columbia Records, and before you know it, “Little Green Apples” had replaced “Main Street Mission” as Smith’s current single.
The song had been written by Bobby Russell specifically for country star Roger Miller. The Miller version of the song reached the Top 40, and a Patti Page cover did some business, but it was Smith’s version that really scored, streaking all the way to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the same position on the R&B chart. The record sold well over one million copies and Russell won Grammy awards for Song of the Year, and Best Country Song.
Smith never again had a hit as big as “Little Green Apples,” but that’s not to say that he didn’t continue to have chart success. Records like “Daddy’s Little Man,” “Friend, Lover, Woman, Wife,” “Me and You,” “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” and “La La Peace Song” all found a place on the Pop chart, and all of those and more were R&B hits. Smith had his last chart hit with “Brenda” in 1987.
After a long and unquestionably successful career as a singer, O.C. Smith became a minister at the City of Angels Church in L.A. He served in that role for 16 years until, in 2001, he died of a heart attack. Smith had become a pivotal figure in the world of Carolina beach music, and after his death, Governor Jim Hodges declared June 21, 2002 to be O.C. Smith day in South Carolina. Smith was subsequently elected to the Carolina Beach Music Hall of Fame in November of that year.