Singer Paula Kelly began her professional career as part of the Kelly Sisters trio, singing on Pittsburgh radio station KDKA. The group later worked with the Hal Thomas orchestra and toured for fifteen months with Major Bowes, forming part of the same unit as Frank Sinatra. After the sister act disbanded, Kelly joined Dick Stabile’s orchestra as a soloist on her sixteenth birthday in 1935, staying with the saxophonist until February 1938, when she left to join Al Donahue the following month. On January 5, 1939, Kelly married singer Hal Dickinson of the Modernaires vocal group, who were then with Paul Whiteman’s band, though the marriage wasn’t announced until April. The couple remained together until his death in 1970.
Kelly remained with Donahue until May 1940, when she left to give birth to her first child, a girl. On April 2, 1941, she joined her husband in Glenn Miller’s band, where she was brought in to replace Dorothy Claire. Claire herself had replaced Marion Hutton in January after Hutton had quit to become a mother, but Claire’s former boss, Bobby Byrne, filed suit against Miller for inducing Claire to break her contract with him. Kelly appeared with Miller’s orchestra in their 1941 film Sun Valley Serenade and often sang accompaniment with the Modernaires. When Hutton decided to return to the band in August, Kelly departed to make way for her.
In October 1941, Kelly joined Artie Shaw for a three-month period, expiring on January 1, 1942. Kelly then fell silent, prompting Down Beat magazine to feature her name in their “Where Is?” column in May. She reappeared in January 1943, subbing for an ill Dorothy Claire in Sonny Dunham’s band. In March, she joined Bob Allen, replacing Lynn Gardner. Touring military bases with Allen, Kelly once gave a solo show in an Army prison, accompanied by an inmate who was a musician she had known from Shaw’s band.
Kelly left Allen in June 1943. In August, she subbed for an ailing Helen Ward during Hal McIntyre’s tour of the Canadian maritime provinces. She then joined with the Modernaires that same month, taking Marion Hutton’s place in the combined Glenn Miller Singers act that Hutton and the Modernaires had performing since Miller had disbanded. When the Modernaires eventually dropped the Miller name, Kelly continued to tour and record with them under the billing “Modernaires with Paula Kelly.” She also occasionally sang and recorded independently.
Kelly took time off from working with the Modernaires twice to have children, once in 1944 and again in 1947. Both were girls, giving her and Dickinson three daughters. Kelly’s 1944 absence was brief, and the Modernaires did not bring in a replacement for her. During her longer absence in 1947, singer Virginia Maxey took her place in the act until she returned.
From 1953 to 1956, Kelly appeared with the Modernaires on Bob Crosby’s popular CBS daytime television program. She stayed in association with the vocal group until her retirement in 1978, replaced by her daughter, Paula Kelly Jr.
Paula Kelly passed away in 1992, age 72, after a long illness.
Maxey had also replaced Kelly when she left Bob Allen’s band. ↩︎