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Helen O'Connell; Popular Vocalist in Big Band Style

September 10, 1993|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Helen O'Connell, the petite singer who with Bob Eberly formed one of the most enduring duos in American popular music, died Thursday at a San Diego hospice.

Her manager, Gloria Burke, said she was 73. With her when she died were her husband, Frank DeVol, the orchestra leader, arranger and composer, and three of her four daughters.

Most recently she had become a soloist, appearing throughout the country on her own or with "ghost bands," the remnants of the dance music bands of the 1930s and '40s. But it was with Eberly and the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra that she achieved her most abiding fame.

Their recordings of "Tangerine," "Green Eyes" and "Amapola" sold in the hundreds of thousands when million-record sales were almost unknown; their appearances at dance and concert halls, primarily on the West Coast, guaranteed standing room only.

The songs were arranged at two levels: First, Eberly would sing the tune as a dreamy, romantic ballad; then the band would "jump it" and Miss O'Connell would join the handsome baritone in a raucous, swinging rendition that sent jitterbuggers scrambling onto the dance floor.

The arrangements were an accommodation to the demands of the radio format. Sponsors insisted that all members of the Dorsey band be showcased in a grand finale, which brought into being the idea of two vocalists sharing a single song.

The duets were established about two years after Miss O'Connell joined the Dorsey band in 1939, replacing Ella Mae Morse.

A delicate, winsome performer in an era when big-band singers were noted for their stout endurance, the blonde, dimpled Miss O'Connell began with Dorsey singing solo on such hits as "Six Lessons From Madame La Zonga," "Little Curly Hair in a High Chair" and the classic torch song "When the Sun Comes Out."

George T. Simon, in his anthology "The Big Bands," said "she exploded notes so forcefully that I always pictured some little man standing behind her and pinching her at crucial times in crucial spots."

She and Eberly were considered two of the kindest people in the often shrill band business and were the closest of friends. Many expected they would marry, but they went their separate ways after World War II.

In the 1950s, she worked with Dave Garroway on NBC's "Today Show." For nine years, she was host of the Miss Universe Pageant and for several years she was a television spokeswoman for Polaroid cameras. Additionally, she had a twice-weekly, 15-minute program, "The Helen O'Connell Show," on NBC in the summer of 1957 and was in an act called Four Girls Four with Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting and Kay Starr.

In the 1970s, she played about 200 one-night stands each year, traveling by jet rather than the old Dorsey bus.

Miss O'Connell, who was born in Lima, Ohio, and began singing with bands when she was 16, continued to tour until shortly before her death. For many summers, she appeared at Disneyland, sometimes with Bob Eberly and occasionally with Ray Eberle, who spelled his name differently than his brother and who was a former vocalist with the Glenn Miller band.

This summer, she toured with a big-band show. She was featured in front of orchestras carrying the names of Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and Miller, and with the contemporary version of the Pied Pipers and singer Don Cornell. Her last performance was at the Valley Forge Music Fair in Valley Forge, Pa., on Aug. 14.

The tour's producer, Craig Hankenson of Tampa, Fla., said she had to leave just before the tour ended because she was experiencing pain.

Burke said Miss O'Connell returned home to San Juan Capistrano and was admitted to a La Jolla hospital, where she underwent surgery Aug. 27.

She married DeVol in 1991. She was previously married to Clifford Smith Jr., heir to a Boston investment fortune, from 1941 to 1951, and to novelist Tom T. Chamales, author of "Never So Few" and "Go Naked in the World," from 1957 until his death in 1960.

A funeral service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Paul's Catholic Church, 10750 Ohio St., Westwood, her manager said. Donations may be sent to the Society of Singers, 8242 West 3rd St., Suite 250, Los Angeles 90048.

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