Born and raised in northwest Ohio, singer Helen 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.
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. 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 Skleton vehicle I Dood It in 1943.
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. 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.
In the late 1940s, O’Connell partially came out of retirement, 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. In early 1948, she recorded with Jimmy Zito’s orchestra for Coast Records and in late September 1948 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, however, 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.