Ocie Lee (O. C.) Smith Jr. started out singing jazz before moving into the genres of country and rhythm & blues/soul. After touring with Count Basie’s band in the early 1960s, he had his biggest hit with the song “Little Green Apples,” which reached number two on the pop and R&B charts in 1968. In the 1980s, he put aside his career as a recording artist to become a minister. Smith was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1996.
O. C. Smith was born in Mansfield, Louisiana, on June 21, 1936 (although some sources say 1932). His parents, Ocie Lee Smith Sr. and Ruth Edwards Shorter Smith, who were both teachers, moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) when Smith was ten years old. His parents later divorced. Three years after the family had moved to Little Rock, Smith moved to Los Angeles, California, with his mother.
Attending Jefferson High School, Smith learned music from the legendary teacher Samuel Brown. Smith said his early influences were bebop jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
Smith attended East Los Angeles Junior College and then Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, majoring in psychology. After college, Smith joined the U.S. Air Force and toured the world with a special services band. He spent the next several years in New York, singing in small clubs in the winter months and in the Catskills in the summer. In early 1961, Smith auditioned successfully to sing for the Count Basie Orchestra, replacing the legendary jazz singer Joe Williams.
Leaving the Count Basie Orchestra after a few years, Smith eventually settled in Los Angeles. Columbia Records soon signed him to a contract. Singing country music for a time (and having a hit with Dallas Frazier’s story-song “Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp”), Smith then became a soul singer.
Among his many recordings, his biggest hit was Bobby Russell’s “Little Green Apples,” which had the number-two slot on both the pop and R&B charts in 1968. The hit song also won its composer Russell the 1968 Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Best Country Song. Smith’s other big R&B single, “Daddy’s Little Man,” reached the number-nine spot on the charts in 1969. Smith stayed with Columbia Records until 1974.
Smith married Robbie Gholson on February 14, 1976; they had two daughters and five sons.
In 1980, some friends invited Smith to attend a service for the religious movement Science of the Mind at the Wilshire Ebel Theater. Smith began studying for the ministry and became a reverend 1985. That same year, Smith and his wife founded the City of Angels Church of Religious Science, which opened in the ballroom of a building near Los Angeles International Airport. The church moved into its own building on Grosvenor Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1996.
Smith died suddenly of an apparent heart attack at his Ladera Heights, California, home on November 23, 2001. He had officiated at a Thanksgiving service at his church the day before his death. His book, co-written with James Shaw, titled Little Green Apples: God Really Did Make Them! was published posthumously in 2003.
For additional information:
City of Angels Church of Religious Science: Bio. of Dr. O. C. Smith. http://www.cityofangelschurchrs.com/newsletter/bio_oc.htm (accessed December 9, 2014).
“O. C. Smith.” AllMusic.com. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/oc-smith-mn0000387954/biography (accessed December 9, 2014).
“O. C. Smith, 65, Singer-Minister Who Had Grammy Award Hit.” New York Times, November 27, 2001, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/27/arts/o-c-smith-65-singer-minister-who-had-a-grammy-award-hit.html (accessed December 9, 2014).
Smith, O. C., and James Shaw. Little Green Apples: God Really Did Make Them! Los Angeles: DeVorss & Company, 2003.
Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture