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Born in Lima, Ohio, O'Connell joined the Jimmy Dorsey band in 1939 and achieved her best selling records in the early 1940s with "Green Eyes", "Amapola," "Tangerine" and "Yours". In each of these Latin-influenced numbers, Bob Eberly crooned the song which Helen then reprised in an up-tempo arrangement. O'Connell was selected by Down Beat readers as best female singer in 1940 and 1941 and won the 1940 Metronome magazine poll for best female vocalist.
O'Connell retired from show business upon her first marriage in 1943. When her marriage ended in 1951, she resumed her career, achieving some chart success and making regular appearances on television. She was one of the first "girls" on NBC's The Today Show, and at one point had her own NBC program, Here's Hollywood, conducting interviews with celebrities, often in their own homes. O'Connell co-hosted the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants with Bob Barker from 1972 to 1980 and was nominated for an Emmy award in 1976 for her coverage of the Miss Universe pageant. O'Connell sang duets with Bing Crosby, Johnny Mercer, and Dean Martin. O'Connell's 1942 recording of Brazil with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra was a 2009 addition to the Grammy Hall of Fame.
O'Connell was married four times and had four children. Her last marriage, to arranger-conductor-composer Frank De Vol, ended with her death on September 9, 1993 in San Diego, California following a battle with Hepatitis C.
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