Big band singer Paula Kelly began her professional career as part of the Kelly Sisters trio, singing on Pittsburgh radio station KDKA. They later worked with the Hal Thomas orchestra and toured for ﬁfteen months with Major Bowes before disbanding. 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. In 1939, she met and married singer Hal Dickinson, of the Modernaires vocal group. They couple remained together until his death in 1970.
In early 1941, Kelly joined Glenn Miller, where she was brought in to replace Dorothy Claire. Claire herself had replaced Marion Hutton, who was on leave of absence, but hadn’t work out. Kelly appeared with the orchestra in their 1941 ﬁlm Sun Valley Serenade and often sang accompaniment with her husband’s vocal group. Hutton returned and replaced Kelly in August of that year.
Kelly was a fairly popular vocalist, ﬁnishing as tenth favorite female band vocalist in Billboard magazine’s 1941 college poll and twelfth in 1942. After leaving Miller, she sang with Artie Shaw’s band until early 1942 and then joined Bob Allen in March 1943, replacing Lynn Gardner. Touring Army bases with Allen, Kelly once gave a solo show in an Army prison, accompanied by an inmate who previously had been a professional musician she had known while with Shaw’s band.
In August 1943, Kelly subbed for an ailing Helen Ward during Hal McIntyre’s tour of the Canadian maritime provinces but soon rejoined with the Modernaires that same month after Hutton left their combined Glenn Miller Singers act to go solo. Kelly became an adjunct member of the group, which toured and recorded under the name Modernaires with Paula Kelly. She also continued to sing and record independently from the Modernaires.
From 1951 to 1955, 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.
- Later sources often give Kelly’s start date with the Modernaires as 1942. Sources at the time, however, clearly show otherwise.