Amy Arnell

Photo of Amy Arnell
  • Born

    May 18, (1917 or earlier)
    Portsmouth, Virginia
  • Died

  • Orchestras

    Tommy Tucker

Singer Amy Arnell is best remembered for the 1941 hit song “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” which she performed with Tommy Tucker’s orchestra. The tune’s success made her a major celebrity during the early 1940s, with her name regularly appearing in show business columns. Arnell worked with Tucker for more than seven years, finally leaving in 1943 for a solo career. She married and retired from music in 1946.

A native of Portsmouth, Virginia,[1] Arnell began singing at a young age. She initially had ambitions of becoming a school teacher and attended William and Mary College, working for a time as a secretary. Arnell sang in a church choir and on local radio before making her national radio debut on the Phil Baker show in Detroit. It was in the choir where Tommy Tucker first heard her and offered her a job with his orchestra, sometime before March 1936.[2]

Known in the industry by the nickname “Hard Luck Amy,” Arnell’s many mishaps started early and became legendary. She first sang with Tucker’s band in her hometown, where they played a one-night stand. Packing up her belongings, she followed them to Miami a few days later, but when she arrived she learned that she’d miscalculated the time and the orchestra had left for Detroit a few hours earlier. She grabbed the first train out to follow them. The trip to Detroit was uncomfortable, and she performed her first show with severe back pain. The pain increased so much that on the second day they moved her dressing room so that she wouldn’t have to use the stairs.

Early on, Arnell formed part of a trio with singers Leah Ray and Emily Lane. She soon became Tucker’s featured vocalist, however, often receiving equal billing with Tucker himself in advertisements and in the press. In addition to being a featured vocalist, Arnell also sang as part of the band’s vocal group, variously known as The Voices Three, The Voices Four or The Voices Five.[3] Billed as the “Swanee Sweetheart,” Arnell’s voice was heard along with the orchestra on various radio programs, including George Jessel’s show in 1937 and 1938, NBC’s Pot O’ Gold in 1940, and the band’s own NBC program in 1936, sustainer Mutual shows from 1939 to 1941 and CBS program in 1943. In 1940, when Arnell wasn’t on tour with Tucker, she performed at the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago.

During a 1941 recording session, Arnell sang with a sore throat. Neither she nor Tucker were happy with the results of the session, but Tucker decided to okay the B record anyway. That song, “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” became their most successful recording, selling over 500,000 copies and moving the band from being a $500 a night orchestra into the top earning bracket. Arnell received a raise and used the extra money to open a flower shop, Flowers by Arnell, on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, in which she had half-interest. Tucker and Arnell had first heard the song sung by Bon Bon at Lou’s Moravian Inn in Philadelphia in 1940.

Arnell took leaves of absence from Tucker’s band several times in the 1940s. An hour after a May 1942 show, she had to be rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Babs Stewart replaced her in Tucker’s band during her recovery. In September, she left the band for one week to travel to Hollywood for a screen test with MGM.[4] In May 1943, she underwent a spinal operation in a New York hospital, which was expected to put her out of the band for three months.[5] She traveled to the West Coast to recover. Tucker initially announced that he wouldn’t replace Arnell during her absence, and she made a return in early June before ending up in the hospital again at the end of the month, where she underwent another spinal surgery in July. Tucker then hired Carol Page to take her place while she was gone.

Post-Band Years

By mid-1943, Arnell had begun studying dramatics and diction with hopes of starting a screen or stage career. Leaving Tucker to go solo in late 1943, she hit the theater and nightclub circuit at a reputed $1,000 a week, making her New York debut at both the La Martinique night club and the State theater in New York on the same night, December 18.[6] She also made an appearance on the CBS radio program Broadway Matinee in January 1944.

Bad luck continued to follow her. At the start of a show in Boston’s Statler Hotel, Arnell found that her microphone was dead. She knew that several producers and scouts were in the audience, so she improvised the best she could, contorting her hands and making silly motions to emphasize her singing. The performance garnered her a role in the 1944 summer touring company of the musical comedy Early to Bed. On opening night in New Haven, Connecticut, Arnell was so nervous that she completely forgot to appear in one scene. Influenced by her success in landing the part, Arnell decided to devote herself full-time to a career in acting. Her appearance in the production caused Hollywood to take an interest in her again, but on the day of her screen test she ended up with a swollen face.

In late 1944 and early 1945, Arnell apparently suffered a mishap while on a USO tour, as columnist Dorothy Kilgallen reported in January that she was confined to “the South Pacific hospital” due to a leg injury and was entertaining GIs from a wheelchair. In January 1946, she became a regular on Abbott and Costello’s weekly radio program, replacing Connie Haines, who left to pursue work in nightclubs and on the stage. More mishaps followed Arnell into radio. Her debut broadcast was preempted by a speech from President Truman. The following week, when she was introduced to sing her first number, she discovered that her microphone was dead. In addition to her singing duties, Arnell reportedly used her secretarial training to take down in shorthand any gags that Abbott and Costello thought of during rehearsals.

Arnell’s stay on the show was short. While they were on summer hiatus, she married service medical officer Dr. Paul J. O’Connor, of Boston, and retired from show business, leaving with him for Florida. Arnell purportedly had met O’Connor while in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy, which would have been four-and-a-half years earlier.

Strange Romantic Life

Arnell’s love life was questionable, confusing, and no doubt mostly the product of publicity agents and gossip columnists. In March 1941, Walter Winchell reported that Arnell was involved with bandleader Orrin Tucker while other sources noted that same month she was steadily dating Jack Leonard, who had just received his draft notice. In May 1941, Dorothy Kilgallen reported that actor Victor McLaglen was pursuing Arnell. McLaglen was 30 years Arnell’s senior and married at the time.

A June 1941 column stated that the piece of lapel jewelry Arnell wore while singing was a replica of a coffin. It was given to her by her boyfriend, who was an undertaker. Jack Leonard was said to still be mooning over her in early 1944 at the same time columnists had Arnell romantically linked to bandleader Charlie Barnet, though Kilgallen ended up calling that relationship out as “strictly press-agent inspired,” which brings us to the strange saga of her relationship with character actor Billy De Wolfe, a closeted homosexual.

Rumors in several March 1945 columns had Arnell marrying Captain Morgan Heap, an Army Transport Command officer stationed in Minneapolis, while Winchell linked her to De Wolfe that same month, saying the two would be getting married in a fortnight. In February 1946, Erskine Johnson reported that Arnell and De Wolfe were planning an elopement, and in May 1946 other columnists printed that Arnell had become engaged to De Wolfe. In October and November, the same columns reported that Arnell had either called off or “postponed indefinitely” the engagement and returned to New York, with De Wolfe saying “Amy just doesn’t want to settle down.” Other columnists reported her marriage to O’Connor.

In mid-1949, De Wolfe’s name pops up again. Arnell and O’Connor had separated and were in the midst of a divorce, and Arnell was said to have been “constantly at Billy’s bedside,” waiting until her divorce was final so that they could be married. The wedding was planned for January 1 in Miami. Columns in early 1950, however, reported that the wedding was off, with De Wolfe saying that while he was out playing night clubs and theaters the previous year Arnell had married someone else. Given De Wolfe’s sexuality, this on-again, off-again relationship was almost certainly “press-agent inspired.”[7]

The man Arnell married, for real, in either late 1949 or early 1950, was Kurt H. Schariff, of Los Angeles. Schariff owned a chain of dress shops for which Arnell became promotion manager and “chief model.” The couple were expecting a baby in February 1952. A 1958 columnist cited Arnell as married and living in Hollywood.

Arnell claimed to never use make-up and loved to swim, golf, and play gin rummy. She also had an interest in becoming a pilot, stating in 1943 that the thrill of her life will be the first time she flies in a plane solo. Standing 5’5½" (166 cm) and weighing 114 pounds (51.7 kg), her father was a railroad worker, and she had two brothers and one sister. In 1942, she was spending $7.50 a day for “special instruction.”


  1. Most sources cite Portsmouth, Virginia, as Arnell’s birthplace, however one source indicated that she’d actually been born in Roanoke but had been raised in Portsmouth. ↩︎

  2. Arnell’s stated birth year of 1919 is undoubtedly wrong. In a 1942 interview, Arnell told Down Beat magazine that she was 23 years old, which is the source for that date. Arnell, however, also stated, in various sources, that she had both attended William and Mary and worked as a secretary before becoming part of Tucker’s band. In that 1942 interview, she claimed to have been with the band for five years, which would have put her joining in 1937, however sources clearly show she was part of the orchestra in March 1936 and had been there for at least several months, which would have made her only 16 years old at the time of joining if her birth year was 1919, too young to have gone to college or work as a secretary. It’s apparent that she had begun to fudge her age by the time of that interview. If she had been born in a more realistic 1916 or earlier, she would have been 26+ years old in 1942, which would have made her “ancient” by show business standards of the time. Interestingly, Arnell was often billed as “Tucker’s latest discovery” even as late as 1939. ↩︎

  3. Tucker kept six vocalists in his band at one time. ↩︎

  4. Both Down Beat and Billboard ran articles, taken from the same press release no doubt due to their similarities, mentioning Arnell’s screen test. Both articles stated a September date when she was to leave the band, however in the October 17 issue of Billboard her screen test was said to be occurring “this week.” Of the original articles, Down Beat gave no studio name while Billboard reported it as RKO. Later reports, however, all say MGM. ↩︎

  5. A newspaper article intimated that the spinal injury was a direct result of the back problems she’d suffered after her train ride from Miami to Detroit. ↩︎

  6. She had spent the previous week at the Hippodrome in Hanover, Pennsylvania, as part of an “all-girl revue” with Ada Leonard’s all-female orchestra and the Watson Sisters. The advertisement promised “Girls… Girls… Girls. Nothing But Girls!!” ↩︎

  7. One gossip columnist said that De Wolfe had married someone else after the couple’s first break-up, which is untrue. He never married. ↩︎


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Amy Arnell.” OTRRpedia. Accessed 25 Mar. 2018.
  3. The Online Discographical Project. Accessed 27 Jul. 2015.
  4. “Music, Song And Lecture At Auto Show.” Syracuse Herald 30 Mar. 1936, 6.
  5. “Gen. Motors Show Closes.” Syracuse Herald 5 Apr. 1936, 2-C.
  6. “Amy Arnell With Tommy Tucker's Band Tonight.” Cumberland Evening Times [Cumberland, Maryland] 29 Apr. 1936, 13.
  7. “Amusements.” The Mansfield News-Journal [Mansfield, Ohio] 7 May 1936, 7.
  8. “Orchestra at Park Has Six Soloists.” The Pittsburgh Press 23 May 1936, 6.
  9. “Tommy Tucker Band and Amy Arnell Back at Enna Jettick.” Syracuse Herald 9 Aug. 1936, 8-D.
  10. Advertisement. “Tommy Tucker.” El Paso Herald Post 21 Oct. 1936, 8.
  11. “Centennial Singer.” Del Rio Evening News [Del Rio, Texas] 26 Oct. 1936, 3.
  12. Canfield, Homer. “Radiologic.” Santa Ana Daily Register 11 Dec. 1937: 8.
  13. “Tommy Tucker Coming.” Monessen Daily Independent [Monessen, Pennsylvania] 22 Nov. 1938: 5.
  14. “Radio.” Indiana Evening Gazette [Indiana, Pennsylvania] 24 Aug. 1939: 18.
  15. “On the Air: Tommy Tucker.” Billboard 10 Aug. 1940: 12.
  16. Photo. Auburn Plainsman [Auburn, AL] 8 Nov. 1940: 2.
  17. “Tommy Tucker Opens Sophomore Hop.” Auburn Plainsman [Auburn, Alabama] 8 Nov. 1940: 3.
  18. “Tums Radio Show For Tommy Tucker.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1940: 14.
  19. Winchell, Walter. “On Broadway.” The Decatur Daily [Decatur, Alabama] 11 Mar. 1941: 4.
  20. Kilgallen, Dorothy. “Broadway.” Mansfield News-Journal [Mansfield, Ohio] 21 May 1941: 11.
  21. “Hollywood Gossip Page.” Human Interest Magazine of the Oakland Tribune 1 Jun. 1941: 2.
  22. Egan, Jack. “Egan Excreta.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1941: 4.
  23. “Johnson, Tucker Orks Draw in A.P.” Billboard 30 Aug. 1941: 26.
  24. “Lucky Breaks Bring Success to Orchestras.” The Ogden Standard-Examiner [Ogden, Utah] 26 Apr. 1942: 13-B.
  25. Tucker, George. “Man About Manhattan.” Prescott Evening Courier [Prescott, Arizona] 22 May 1942: 4.
  26. Tucker, George. “In New York.” The Frederick Post [Frederick, Maryland] 27 May 1942: 4.
  27. “Diggin' the Bands Where They Play: Tommy Tucker.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1942: 23.
  28. “Tommy Tucker Sells Out at Palmer House.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1942: 2.
  29. “T. Tucker Going Big in Chi.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1942: 11.
  30. “Tucker Crew For Chicago Theater.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1942: 5.
  31. “Profiling the Players: Tommy Tucker Orchestra.” Down Beat 1 Sep. 1942: 19.
  32. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 17 Oct. 1942: 24.
  33. “On the Air: Tommy Tucker.” Billboard 3 Apr. 1943: 20.
  34. “Vaudeville Reviews: Roxy, New York.” Billboard 1 May 1943: 15.
  35. “Amy Arnell with Famed Orchestra.” Hagerstown Morning Herald [Hagerstown, Maryland] 6 May 1943: 6.
  36. “In Short.” Billboard 22 May 1943: 17.
  37. “Amy Arnell to Take a Leave.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1943: 2.
  38. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 12 Jun. 1943: 16.
  39. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 26 Jun. 1943: 26.
  40. “Carol Page Now Sings for Tucker.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1943: 2.
  41. “Vaudeville Reviews: Roxy, New York.” Billboard 30 Oct. 1943: 20.
  42. Advertisement. “Hippodrome.” The Hanover Evening Sun [Hanover, PA] 10 Dec. 1943: 9.
  43. “Amy Doesn't Want to--Oh, No?” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1943: 3.
  44. Cohen, Harold V. “Drama Desk.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 15 Dec. 1943: n. pag.
  45. “Rose Marie Shifts To Chez on Payoff; Arnell Fills Spot.” Billboard 18 Dec. 1943: 18.
  46. “Last Minute Shopping Rough on Vauders.” Billboard 25 Dec. 1943: 36.
  47. “Vaudeville Reviews: State, New York.” Billboard 25 Dec. 1943: 40.
  48. “Here's News Capsule of Highlighted Happenings Of Music World In 1943.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1944: 3.
  49. Cohen, Harold V. “Drama Desk.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 12 Jan. 1944: n. pag.
  50. “The Radio Programs.” The Findlay Republican-Courier 21 Jan. 1944: 6.
  51. Kilgallen, Dorothy. “Voice of Broadway.” Pottstown Mercury [Pottstown, Pennsylvania] 25 Jan. 1944: 4.
  52. Kilgallen, Dorothy. “Voice of Broadway.” Pottstown Mercury [Pottstown, Pennsylvania] 1 Feb. 1944: 4.
  53. Kilgallen, Dorothy. “Voice of Broadway.” The Lowell Sun [Lowell, Massachusetts] 17 Feb. 1944: 23.
  54. “In Short.” Billboard 1 Apr. 1944: 27.
  55. “Amy Arnell Gets Lead In Summer Company.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1944: 1.
  56. Kilgallen, Dorothy. “Voice of Broadway.” The Lowell Sun [Lowell, Massachusetts] 20 Jan. 1945: 11.
  57. “Music&mdash&As Written: Chicago.” Billboard 24 Mar. 1945: 22.
  58. Kilgallen, Dorothy. “Voice of Broadway.” Pottstown Mercury [Pottstown, Pennsylvania] 27 Mar. 1945: 4.
  59. Winchell, Walter“On Broadway.” The Laredo Times 4 Apr. 1945: 10.
  60. Dee, Jay. “West Coast Radio Log.” The Milwaukee Journal 23 Dec. 1945: 9.
  61. “Amy Arnell Replaces Connie Haines On Air.” Down Beat 14 Jan. 1946: 21.
  62. Johnson, Erskine. “Hollywood Gossip.” Burlington Daily Times-News [Burlington, North Carolina] 23 Feb. 1946: 3.
  63. Profile. “Radio Guide.” Altoona Tribune [Altoona, Pennsylvania] 19 Mar. 1946: 11.
  64. Vale, Virginia. “Star Dust.” The Stromsburg Headlight [Stromsburg, Nebraska] 21 Mar. 1946: 2.
  65. Carroll, Harrison. “Hollywood.” Evening Independent [Massillon, Ohio] 24 May 1946: 4.
  66. Thomas, Bob. “In Movieland.” The Monroe News-Star [Monroe, Louisiana] 4 Oct. 1946: 2.
  67. Carroll, Harrison. “Hollywood.” Evening Independent [Massillon, Ohio] 11 Nov. 1946: 4.
  68. “Hollywood Gossip.” The High Point Enterprise [High Point, North Carolina] 15 Dec. 1946: 7A.
  69. Kilgallen, Dorothy. “Voice of Broadway.” The Charleston Gazette [Charleston, West Virginia] 1 Jul. 1949: 21.
  70. Fidler, Jimmy. “In Hollywood.” The Democrat and Leader [Davenport, Iowa] 26 Sep. 1949: 12.
  71. Carroll, Harrison. “Behind the Scenes in Hollywood.” Washington Daily News [Washington, North Carolina] 3 Oct. 1949: 3.
  72. Brown, Gene. “Around the Town after Dark.” Cumberland Sunday Times [Cumberland, Maryland] 9 Apr. 1950: 21.
  73. Johnson, Erskine. “In Hollywood.” The Portsmouth Herald [Portsmouth, New Hampshire] 18 Apr. 1950: 9.
  74. Wilson, Earl. “It Happened Last Night.” The Uniontown Morning Herald [Uniontown, Pennsylvania] 26 Dec. 1951: 4.
  75. Sinnott, Dick. “New England Vignettes.” Biddeford Journal [Biddeford, Maine] 10 Oct. 1958: 2.