Fifty-five years ago this summer, on August 4th, 1963, housewife Connie Smith won a talent contest in Columbus, Ohio, earning a performance spot on a local Grand Ole Opry concert where songwriter Bill Anderson took note of her and encouraged her to make a trip to Nashville when the two met again at a New Year’s Day concert in Canton, Ohio.
As 1964 unfolded for the young wife and mother, she garnered yet another invitation – this time a spot on the popular Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree, which followed the Grand Ole Opry on WSM radio. That was in March. In May, she returned to record a four-song demo which Anderson pitched to Nashville’s RCA label chief Chet Atkins. One month later, she was signed to RCA and began recording with producer Bob Ferguson. On July 16th, 1964, 54 years ago today, Smith recorded one of the songs Anderson had written for her. It would become a record-setting single, until two future country singers would shatter those records decades later.
Smith’s debut single, “Once a Day,” wasn’t initially written specifically for her, Anderson would later admit, noting however, “When I did write it, I realized it was perfect for her.” As part of the RCA deal, Anderson says Atkins signed her with the basic stipulation that he would write her songs. From 1964 to 1970, Anderson wrote or co-wrote eight of Smith’s 20 chart singles, including the Top Five hits “Then and Only Then,” “Nobody But a Fool (Would Love You)” (later cut by Chely Wright), and 1967’s “Cincinnati, Ohio.” But with “Once a Day,” Smith became the first female artist to reach Number One with her debut single, which stayed atop the country chart for a staggering eight weeks, at a time when few other women were even reaching the Top Ten. In the above clip, Smith is seen singing the tune in the low-budget country-themed film, Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar, where she’s introduced by “Ring of Fire” songwriter Merle Kilgore. The 1965 film, which starred the Bowery Boys’ Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey, also featured musicians Little Jimmy Dickens, Dottie West, George Hamilton IV, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells and Sonny James, among others.
While the tune is a classic, steeped in the great country tradition of a clever turn of phrase, the atomic power behind it is Smith tear-soaked voice, with her trademark dramatic dips and swoops that remain beautifully intact during her regular Grand Ole Opry appearances. Although she took a lengthy break from travel and the Opry in the Seventies, Smith and her husband, fellow Opry member Marty Stuart performed “Once a Day” together when the Country Music Hall of Fame legend celebrated her 50th anniversary with the Opry in August 2015.
“It’s always been a part of my life,” Smith told Rolling Stone Country at that special event. “When I was five years old I said, ‘Someday I want to sing on the Grand Ole Opry.’ I always had that in my heart. I don’t know that I always thought it would come true. It was just a dream I had, and it did come true.”
In addition to “Once a Day” topping the country chart during the last eight weeks of 1964, Smith’s self-titled debut LP would also hit Number One, as would her follow-up, Cute ‘n’ Country. The 1966 album, Born to Sing – her third long-player that year – would also reach the top spot. Smith would never notch another Number One single but has remained a popular draw at the Opry and in recent years has released a handful of albums including 2011’s brilliant Long Line of Heartaches. Surprisingly, “Once a Day” remained the only Number One debut single by female country art for almost 30 years, until Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s in Love With the Boy.” It was also the longest-running Number One single on the country chart by a woman for the next 48 years, until Taylor Swift logged nine weeks at the top with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” in 2012.