Helen O'Connell

Photo of Helen O'Connell
  • Birth Name

    Helen May O'Connell
  • Born

    May 23, 1920
    Lima, Ohio
  • Died

    September 9, 1993 (age 73)
    San Diego, California
  • Orchestras

    Jimmy Dorsey
    Larry Funk

Singer Helen O’Connell is best remembered today for her work with Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra in the late 1930s and early 1940s. During her bandstand years, O’Connell regularly topped polls as the most popular female vocalist in the country. She left Dorsey in 1943 to marry, retiring from show business soon after. She returned to singing part-time in the late 1940s and full-time in 1950, appearing often on television during that decade.

Born and raised in northwest Ohio, O’Connell began her professional career at age 15 touring with Jimmy Richards’ nine-piece orchestra before eventually landing a steady job on radio station KSD in St. Louis. She later left KSD to sing with Larry Funk and his Band of a Thousand Melodies. Her big break came during a stay in New York in February 1939 when Nita Moore, secretary to Jimmy Dorsey, heard her on the radio while Funk’s orchestra was at the Village Barn in New York. Impressed with her voice, Moore arranged for Dorsey to see her perform in person. Having just gotten rid of Ella Mae Morse, the bandleader was in need of a female vocalist, and liked what he saw and heard. She debuted with Dorsey’s orchestra on February 20.[1]

Though O’Connell had limited vocal range, she became popular with the public and went on to record several big hits with Dorsey, including “Green Eyes” and “All of Me.” Most famous are her duets with Bob Eberly, in whom she was said to have a romantic interest.[2] The pair were the most popular vocal duo in the country in the early 1940s. O’Connell was voted best female vocalist in a 1940 Metronome poll and won Billboard magazine’s 1942 college poll for best female band vocalist, having placed second in 1941 and fourth in 1940. She won Down Beat magazine’s 1940 and 1941 polls for best girl singer and placed second in 1942. O’Connell appeared with Dorsey’s band in two film musicals, The Fleet’s In in 1942 and the Red Skelton vehicle I Dood It in 1943.

Post-Dorsey Career

O’Connell received many offers to step out on her own but always stated that she had no desire to try her luck as a single, not wanting to deal with the expenses and headaches that came with it. That all changed in January 1943, however, when she left Dorsey’s orchestra in preparation for her planned marriage to Clifford Smith.[3] While Smith trained as a navy pilot in nearby New Jersey, O’Connell took radio and theater work. After briefly appearing on NBC’s The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, she joined Al Jolson’s CBS show on March 3. She made a surprise one-night appearance with Dorsey again in February when her replacement in the band, Kitty Kallen, fell ill. In June, she performed solo at the Capitol Theater in New York and then lined up dates in Boston and Washington, D.C. before officially retiring from show business on July 22. O’Connell and Smith finally tied the knot on October 19, after Smith had received his commission.[4]

Settling on the West Coast, O’Connell partially came out of retirement in the late 1940s, singing in early 1946 with Dorsey again for one night at the 400 Restaurant in Manhattan and appearing in the fantastical 1947 biopic The Fabulous Dorseys. She gave birth to a daughter in May 1947. In early 1948, she recorded with Jimmy Zito’s orchestra for Coast Records while pregnant with another daughter, whom she gave birth to in June. In late September, she made her first television appearance on KTSL, but she did not return to show business full time until 1950 when she signed with Capital Records in September. She joined Frank DeVol’s new progressive jazz orchestra that October and sang with the band during its premier at the Hollywood Palladium in November. She quit the orchestra in January 1951, not wanting to leave her children for travel dates.

Though O’Connell was never able to recapture the popularity she had achieved in the early 1940s, she managed a fairly successful comeback. In 1951, she reunited with Eberly to sing duets for Capitol, and the pair became regulars on TV’s Top Tunes. O’Connell appeared often on television during the 1950s, including a stint as co-host of NBC’s Today Show. She also starred in her own television program and was a featured performer on Russ Morgan’s show. She remained active in the music business up until her death from cancer in 1993 at age 73.

O’Connell’s older sister, Alice, sang for Dick Stabile in late 1939.


  1. Dorsey had to retrain O’Connell when she joined his band. With Funk, she had been taught to sing in a whispering style similar to Skinnay Ennis. ↩︎

  2. Eberly married Florine Callahan in early 1940. ↩︎

  3. In early 1941, O’Connell had been engaged to Jimmy Blumenstock, a Fordham College law student. In Down Beat’s August 1, 1941, issue, gossip columnist Jack Egan mentions that O’Connell had a change of heart and “his name’s Cliff Smith.” ↩︎

  4. O’Connell and Smith divorced in 1951. O’Connell married three more times, to novelist Tom Chamales in the 1950s, who passed away in 1960, then briefly to Bob Paris in 1965, and lastly to arranger and orchestra leader Frank DeVol in 1991, with whose band she sang in 1950. ↩︎


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. Walker, Leo. The Wonderful Era of the Great Dance Bands. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972.
  3. The Online Discographical Project. Accessed 5 Jan. 2016.
  4. “Helen O'Connell.” IMDb. Accessed 29 Jul. 2016.
  5. “Dorsey Chirper.” Down Beat Mar. 1939: 2.
  6. “Advertisement.” Billboard 30 Sep. 1939: 83.
  7. “Who's Who in Music: Presenting Jimmy Dorsey's Band.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1939: 11.
  8. “The Big Sister Steps In!” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1939: 1.
  9. “Final Poll Results.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1941: 13.
  10. “Secretary Found Helen O'Connell in Barn.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1941: 19.
  11. Egan, Jack. “Fallstich Joins Rey.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1941: 7.
  12. “Poll Tabulations.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1942: 22.
  13. “Campus Picks Top Chirps.” Billboard 2 May 1942: 19.
  14. “O'Connell and Eberly Say That Fronting a Band Just Ain't Nowhere!” Down Beat15 May 1942: 6.
  15. “Poll Results.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1943: 14.
  16. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand, New York.” Billboard 2 Jan. 1943: 74.
  17. “Miss O'Connell Leaves Dorsey To Become Mrs.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1943: 1.
  18. “Chirper O'Connell to Jolson.” Billboard 6 Mar. 1943: 6.
  19. “Helen Pitches.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1943: 3.
  20. “Helen Subs on Air For Basin Street.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1943: 7.
  21. “O'Connell Takes Carol Bruce Spot.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1943: 2.
  22. “O'Connell on Stage.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1943: 1.
  23. “Helen O'Connell Visits Namesake.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1943: 3.
  24. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1943: 5.
  25. “Marriages.” Billboard 30 Oct. 1943: 56.
  26. “Tied Notes.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1943: 10.
  27. “Big Dough Skirts the Skirts.” Billboard 18 Dec. 1943: 18.
  28. “Recapture Good Old Days.” Down Beat 25 Feb. 1946: 3.
  29. “New Numbers.” Down Beat 18 Jun. 1947: 8.
  30. “New Zito Band Off To Good Start.” Down Beat 14 Jan. 1948: 9.
  31. Ronan, Eddie. “On the Sunset Vine.” Down Beat 6 Oct. 1948: 9.
  32. “Capitol Snares Helen O'Connell.” Billboard 30 Sep. 1950: 12.
  33. “Helen O'Connell To Join DeVol In Palladium Job.” Down Beat 3 Nov. 1950: 3.
  34. “DeVol Comes Up With A Progressive-Tinged Band.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1950: 3.
  35. Holly, Hal. “The Hollywood Beat.” Down Beat 26 Jan. 1951: 9.
  36. “Big Band Vocalist Helen O'Connell Dies.” Observer-Reporter [Washington County, Pennsylvania] 11 Sep. 1993: A11.
  37. “Ohio, County Births, 1841-2003,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KDP2-KKK : Sun Mar 10 07:11:05 UTC 2024), Entry for Helen May O'Connell and Ralph O'Connell, 23 May 1920.
  38. “United States Census, 1930,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X44C-VLP : Thu Mar 07 23:31:12 UTC 2024), Entry for Joseph O'Connell and Mildred O'Connell, 1930.
  39. “California Birth Index, 1905-1995,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V27B-4XP : 27 November 2014), Oconnell in entry for Mildred Joanna Smith, 20 May 1947; citing Los Angeles, California, United States, Department of Health Services, Vital Statistics Department, Sacramento.
  40. “California Birth Index, 1905-1995,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V2R5-TH3 : 27 November 2014), Oconnell in entry for Melanie Jennifer Smith, 06 Jun 1948; citing Los Angeles, California, United States, Department of Health Services, Vital Statistics Department, Sacramento.
  41. “California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QPQH-FVMD : Sun Mar 10 16:36:16 UTC 2024), Entry for Theodore or Tom T Chamales and Thomas Chamales, 20 March 1960.
  42. “California Death Index, 1940-1997,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VPS4-ZGS : 26 November 2014), Helen Oconnell Devol, 09 Sep 1993; Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.
  43. “United States, Social Security Numerical Identification Files (NUMIDENT), 1936-2007,” database, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:6KWS-YR99 : 10 February 2023), Helen May Oconnell