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Singer is back in the swing

Published Oct. 10, 2005

In 1943, at the height of the Swing Era, singer Helen O'Connell walked away. The fetching young star, a darling of the Hit Parade who was heard on such favorites as Tangerine, Amapola, Green Eyes and others, decided in her early 20s to become a full-time wife and mother.

These days, the mere notion would be absurd to an established artist. But consider what Helen O'Connell walked away from. She and Bob Eberly were the featured singers with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, which scoured the countryside on crammed buses, playing dances in cities and small towns alike. Unlike the instrumentalists, singers were not unionized. So when O'Connell's lovely voice would grace a song that became a major hit, she made a pittance.

"I started out getting $15 a song," she explained by phone recently. "It eventually went up to $25. There was no royalty. It was a flat fee. Very flat."

With that, she laughs and claims no bitterness about being left out of the financial loop. The royalties went to Dorsey. That was, simply, how it was done.

What Helen O'Connell did walk away from in 1943 was opportunity. "Mostly it was movie contracts, but I would not take them," she says. "I didn't care what I missed. I wanted to stay home and be "Mama.' "

O'Connell gave birth to three daughters, who are now 47, 43 and 42 _ none of them in show business. By the time she returned to singing in 1950, the swing sound had faded. Jazz was being led by the small-group beboppers, pop hits were generally ballads, saloon songs or cute, novelty numbers. The rock 'n' roll era was a few short years away.

The singer signed with Capitol as a solo artist. The royalties would finally be hers.

But the big hits never came.

By the mid '50s, O'Connell had found a home on television. From 1956-58, she was one of the "Today Girls," trading quips with Today Show host Dave Garroway, interviewing guests and filling in the show's "weather board."

From May to September 1957, she headed up the Helen O'Connell Show, a twice-weekly slot that filled 15 minutes after the network news. It was based on a simple concept: O'Connell would sing a few songs. Also, O'Connell hosted the Miss U.S.A. and Miss Universe pageants for nine consecutive years.

These days, O'Connell supposedly is riding a rebirth of the big band sound. But, like many of her contemporaries, she says the style never vanished.

"It got buried under a lot of junk for awhile, but it never totally disappeared," she says. "The problem really became one of economics. It became difficult to tote a big band around. Guys went into studios and made big money without having to traipse all over the country. But the music seems to be more popular now, and has been going that way for a few years."

The commercial success of younger performers like Harry Connick Jr. and Natalie Cole _ who have brought standard tunes back into the limelight of late _ can have only a positive effect on the original purveyors. O'Connell can stay about as busy as she wants to.

"A couple of years ago, I felt the need to cut back somewhat," the 71-year-old singer says. "But before that I was going between eight and 10 months a year on the road."

Her reunion tour, as it is being touted, with the Dorsey Band (under the direction of trombonist Jim Miller) calls for her to perform once a month for seven months. Although Jimmy Dorsey has been dead since the '50s, and most of the players that now flank O'Connell on the bandstand are a fraction of her age, she says the current ensemble creates "the same feel."

Still, there are differences. "Back then, the same fellas played the same arrangements every night, so of course they played together better as a unit," she says. "We were all young and working very hard, because when you're young you're not aware of it. We had a good relationship all the way around in Jimmy's band. He was so laid-back and shy, a dream to work for. Some really good musicians came into that band and didn't last. If they didn't get along, they got lost, that's all."

O'Connell and the Dorsey Orchestra will appear at the Geritol Extend Big Band Bash tonight. Last year's inaugural event drew 1,200 mostly 50-plus folks to the Coliseum last year. The hall's enormous wooden dance floor was filled with couples jitterbugging, lindy-hopping or cutting a rug in some fashion. Some swayed to the music, reminiscing; others did precise, intricate steps; others were quite athletic. All in all, it was quite a display.

Expect much the same at this year's Bash. The evening will culminate with a swing dance contest. The winners will collect prizes here and, in June, go on to New York to compete in a national dance-off.

The Geritol Extend Big Band Bash, 7-11 tonight at the Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Tickets $10. Call 892-5202 (St. Petersburg).