Paula Kelly

Photo of Paula Kelly

Singer Paula Kelly is best remembered for her brief stay in Glenn Miller’s band and for her long association with the Modernaires vocal quartet. Kelly had a busy career in the 1930s but only worked sporadically after marrying Modernaire Hal Dickinson in 1939 and starting a family. In 1943, she became part of a combined act with her husband’s group that lasted more than three decades and saw her appear regularly on television during the 1950s.

Born and raised in Grove City, Pennsylvania, Kelly was the youngest of four children. Her father was a dentist. Kelly began her professional career in the early 1930s, teaming up in a vocal trio with her two female siblings, Julia and Martha. The Kelly Sisters sang on Pittsburgh radio station KDKA and later worked with the Hal Thomas orchestra before touring for fifteen months with Major Bowes, where they formed 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. Kelly married Dickinson on January 5, 1939, though the marriage wasn’t announced until April.[1] The couple remained together until his death in 1970.

Kelly stayed with Donahue until May 1940, when she left to give birth to her first child, Martha. On April 2, 1941, she joined her husband in 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 contract, which expired on January 1, 1942. She 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. That same month, Marion Hutton decided to leave the combined Glenn Miller Singers act that she and the Modernaires had started after Miller had disbanded the previous year, and Kelly stepped in to take her place. When the Modernaires eventually dropped the Miller name, Kelly continued to tour and record with them under the billing “Modernaires with Paula Kelly.” She was not part of the Modernaires, as many modern sources state. The four male Modernaires also performed and recorded without Kelly, and Kelly occasionally sang and recorded independently as well.

Kelly took time off from working with the Modernaires twice to have children, once in 1944 and again in 1947. Both were girls, Paula Junior and Juliann, 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.[2]

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. Her daughter, Paula Kelly Junior, replaced her.

After Dickinson passed away, Kelly married Richard Turner in 1980. Paula Kelly passed away in 1992, age 72, after a long illness.


  1. The Modernaires were then with Paul Whiteman’s band. ↩︎

  2. Maxey had also replaced Kelly when she left Bob Allen’s band. ↩︎


  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. “Paula and Dick Part.” The Pittsburgh Press 19 Mar. 1938: 6.
  4. “Tied Notes.” Down Beat May 1939: 10.
  5. “Al Donahue Examines Al Donahue.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1940: 9.
  6. “Late Flashes.” Down Beat 1 May 1940: 2.
  7. “New Numbers.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1940: 10.
  8. “Paula Kelly In, Claire Out of G. Miller Band.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1941: 1.
  9. “Plenty of Bowes Tyros Hit the Gong Instead of Getting It.” Billboard 23 Aug. 1941: 4.
  10. King, John Paul. “The Radio Mail Box.” The Milwaukee Journal 24 Aug. 1941: 11.
  11. “Kelly Set for 3 Months as Shaw Singer.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1941: 1.
  12. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 8 Nov. 1941: 22.
  13. “Shaw's Men on Sports Riff With 3 Ball Teams Active.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1941: 11.
  14. “On the Records.” Billboard 24 Jan. 1942: 61.
  15. “Campus Picks Top Chirps.” Billboard 2 May 1942: 19.
  16. “Where Is?” Down Beat 15 May 1942: 10.
  17. “Dunham Vocals Still Unsettled.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1943: 5.
  18. “Bob Allen Signed for Penn, Capitol.” Billboard 20 Mar. 1943: 26.
  19. “Paula Kelly New Bob Allen Chirp.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1943: 2.
  20. “Virginia Maxey Joins Bob Allen.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1943: 1.
  21. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 7 Aug. 1943: 15.
  22. “Hal McIntyre, First. U.S. Ork to Hit Maritime Provinces in Four Years, Scores Big Success.” Billboard 14 Aug. 1943: 16.
  23. “Paula Kelly to Modernaires.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1943: 1.
  24. Steinhauser, Si. “Opens Mouth Silently, Draws Breath and Pay.” The Pittsburgh Press 19 Aug. 1943: 31.
  25. Kilgallen, Dorothy. “The Voice of Broadway.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12 Feb. 1944: 10.
  26. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1944: 5.
  27. “New Numbers.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1944: 10.
  28. Roman, Eddie. “On the Sunset Vine.” Down Beat 8 Oct. 1947: 8.
  29. “Paula Kelly Back.” Down Beat 22 Oct. 1947: 11.
  30. “Versatile Modernaires Have Varied Musical Backgrounds.” Wilmington Sunday Star [Wilmington, North Carolina] 20 Sep. 1953: 12.
  31. Wolf, William. “Like Mother, Like Daughter.” The Pittsburgh Press 14 May 1967: n. pag.
  32. “United States Census, 1920,” FamilySearch ( : Sat Mar 09 19:10:22 UTC 2024), Entry for Herbert A Kelley and Julia Kelley, 1920.
  33. “United States Census, 1930,” FamilySearch ( : Sun Mar 10 03:52:50 UTC 2024), Entry for Herbert A Kelley and Julia K Kelley, 1930.
  34. “United States 1950 Census,” FamilySearch ( : Tue Mar 19 09:55:47 UTC 2024), Entry for Harold H Dickinson and Paula K Dickinson, May 15, 1950.
  35. “California Death Index, 1940-1997,” database, FamilySearch ( : 26 November 2014), Pauline Kennedy Turner, 02 Apr 1992; Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.
  36. “United States, Social Security Numerical Identification Files (NUMIDENT), 1936-2007,” database, FamilySearch ( : 10 February 2023), Pauline Kennedy Kelly.