O'Connell, Helen (1920–1993)

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O'Connell, Helen (1920–1993)

American big-band singer of the early 1940s. Name variations: Helen DeVol. Born in Lima, Ohio, on May 23, 1920; died of cancer on September 9, 1993, in San Juan Capistrano, California; dropped out of school after her sophomore year; later received diploma from Hollywood High School; married Clifford Smith, Jr. (a Navy aviator and heir to a Boston investment fortune), in 1941 (divorced 1951); married Thomas T. Chamales (an author), in 1957 (died 1960); married Bob Paris (a musician), in 1964 (annulled 1965); married Frank DeVol (a composer and conductor), in 1991; children: four daughters.

Noted as the sunniest of the big-band era singers, Helen O'Connell made a name for herself with the Jimmy Dorsey band in the early 1940s, particularly teamed with Bob Eberly on such hits as "Green Eyes" and "Tangerine." O'Connell's perky good looks and infectious smile were a large part of her appeal; one journalist likened her charming dimples to "two quote marks around a happy phrase."

O'Connell, who was born in 1920 in Lima, Ohio, and grew up in Toledo, was not the first singer in her Irish-American family. Her older sister Alice sang with dance bands around Ohio to help support the family after the death of their father. When Alice eloped, Helen inherited her evening gowns and her place behind the microphone. She sang for band after band until 1939, when orchestra leader Jimmy Dorsey heard her one night in a Greenwich Village club and hired her the next day. O'Connell's strength was in novelty tunes rather than ballads ("Amapola," "Six Lessons from Madame La Zonga," "The Jumpin' Jive"), and when teamed with Eberly, she most often followed his romantic interpretation of the song with an upbeat, bouncy second chorus. "As soon as you heard four bars of her singing you knew it was Helen O'Connell," said singer Don Cornell. O'Connell and Eberly became the most popular male-female singing duo on the big-band circuit; they were also linked romantically until both married others. During the height of her popularity, O'Connell also appeared

in two movies: The Fleet's In (1942) and I Dood It (1943).

O'Connell wed a Navy aviator in 1941, but remained with the band until 1943. She was at the height of her career when she left to care for her children while her husband was in the service. "I got tired of all the traveling around by bus and train, and all the one-nighters," she told a reporter for The New York Times. "I love music and show business, and it's done a lot for me. But when you have children to raise, it's not a healthy life." O'Connell also later admitted that she had issues with Dorsey over her salary and the lack of royalties on her recordings. The singer settled in Los Angeles, and was pretty much out of show business during the late 1940s except for an appearance in the movie The Fabulous Dorseys (1947). O'Connell used the down time to complete her high school education, enrolling at Hollywood High School under her married name.

Following her divorce in 1950, O'Connell took up singing again, cutting several records and appearing on television with Bob Eberly and later with the Russ Morgan orchestra. In 1957, she joined Dave Garroway on the early morning "Today Show," where she covered the weather and features but sang very little. She also appeared on the twice-weekly, 15-minute "The Helen O'Connell Show" for NBC. On one of the "Today Show" telecasts, O'Connell met author Thomas T. Chamales who was promoting his new book Never So Few. The couple married two weeks later, but Chamales turned out to be an abuser, and they were separated at the time of his death in a house fire in 1960. A subsequent marriage to musician Bob Paris ended in an annulment after only ten months. In 1991, she married composer-conductor Frank DeVol.

O'Connell reignited her career a third time in the late 1970s and 1980s, when a nostalgia craze swept the country. She toured in the show 4 Girls 4 for several years, with singers Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting, Rose Marie , and sometimes Kay Starr , and appeared at Manhattan's Rainbow Grill and the Drake Hotel in Chicago. O'Connell was still performing at the time of her final illness.


Carr, Ian, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley. Jazz, The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides, 1995.

"Helen O'Connell" (obituary), in The Day [New London, CT]. September 10, 1993.

Hemming, Roy, and David Hajdu. Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop. NY: Newmarket Press, 1991.

Kinkle, Roger D. The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz: 1900–1950. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of …? 3rd series. NY: Crown, 1970.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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O'Connell, Helen (1920–1993)

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