Born Ocie Lee Smith in Mansfield, Louisiana, Smith moved with his parents to Little Rock, Arkansas, before their divorce saw Smith and his mother move to Los Angeles, California.
After completing a psychology degree at Southern University, Smith joined the Air Force, and served throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. While in the Air Force, Smith began entering talent contests and toured with Horace Heidt. On his discharge in July, 1955, Smith went into jazz music to pay the bills.
Smith gained his first break as a singer with Sy Oliver and made an appearance on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. His success on that show led to a recording contract with Cadence Records.
Smith's debut release was a cover of the Little Richard hit "Tutti Frutti" in December, 1955. The song was not a hit, but convinced MGM Records to sign Smith to a solo contract, resulting in three more releases, but still no hits.
In 1961, Smith was recruited by Count Basie to be his vocalist, a position he held until 1965. He also continued to record with different labels, but a hit remained elusive. (His highest chart position was number 127, for his 1967 release, "That's Life"). By 1968, Smith's then label, Columbia Records, was ready to release him from his contract, when he entered the charts for the first time with "Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp", which reached number 2 in the UK Singles Chart and also broke the Top 40 in the United States. In 1976 Kenny Rogers revived the hit as a country song.
Smith changed the first part of his name to O.C. and recorded a cover of the Bobby Russell song "Little Green Apples", which shot to number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won Smith the 1969 Grammy Award for "Best Song".
While Smith was unable to scale these heights again, he continued to record, reaching the R&B, Adult Contemporary and Pop charts in his home country with the likes of "Daddy's Little Man", "Friend, Lover, Woman, Wife", "Me and You" and "Love To Burn". He also returned to the UK Singles Chart in 1977 with "Together", reaching a top 30 position.
He retired from music to study divinity and in 1985, Smith became Dr. O.C. Smith, pastor of the City of Angels Science of Mind Centre in Los Angeles, and he continued to preach until his death in 2001