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, 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, then with Paul Whiteman’s band, though the married wasn’t announced until April. They 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 Glenn Miller, where she was brought in to replace Dorothy Claire. Claire herself had replaced Marion Hutton in January but had been let go after her former boss, Bobby Byrne, filed suit against Miller for inducing her to break her contract with him. Kelly appeared with the orchestra in their 1941 film Sun Valley Serenade and often sang accompaniment with her husband’s vocal group. Hutton, who had been on leave to become a mother, returned to the band and replaced Kelly in August of that year.
Kelly was a popular vocalist, finishing as tenth favorite female band vocalist in Billboard magazine’s 1941 college poll and twelfth in 1942. After leaving Miller, she joined Artie Shaw in October 1941 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. Kelly 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 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.
By August 1943, Kelly had departed Allen. That month she subbed for an ailing Helen Ward during Hal McIntyre’s tour of the Canadian maritime provinces. She then joined with the Modernaires also that same month after Marion 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 occasionally sang and record independently from the Modernaires.
Kelly left the Modernaires twice to have children, once in 1944 and again in 1947. Both were girls, giving her and Dickinson three daughters. During her absence in 1947, singer Virginia Maxey took her place in the act.
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.