Della Reese, who segued from pop and jazz singing stardom in the ‘50s and ‘60s to a long career as a popular TV actress on “Touched by an Angel” and other shows, died Sunday night at her home in California. She was 86.
“She was an incredible wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and pastor, as well as an award-winning actress and singer. Through her life and work she touched and inspired the lives of millions of people,” actress Roma Downey, Reese’s co-star on “Touched By an Angel,” said in a statement announcing Reese’s death. “She was a mother to me and I had the privilege of working with her side by side for so many years on ‘Touched by an Angel.’ I know heaven has a brand new angel this day. Della Reese will be forever in our hearts.”
Reared in gospel, Reese became a seductive, big-voiced secular music star with her No. 1 R&B and No. 2 pop hit “Don’t You Know” in 1959. The 45, her first single on RCA Records, was a ballad drawn from an aria from Puccini’s opera “La Boheme.”
She ranged through a series of releases that showed off her mastery of standards, jazz and contemporary pop through the early ‘70s, and over the course of her career she received four Grammy Award nominations.
By 1969 she had launched her TV show “Della” – the first talker hosted by an African-American woman – and had begun a move into an acting career that would take her to even greater national prominence.
Speaking of her TV and film work with the Associated Press’ Bob Thomas in 1997, she said, “I had good training for it. I was always a stylist, a lyricist. I became acquainted with the words in order to convince you I must believe in what I’m singing. That’s what acting is: believing. It was just like one thing flowing into another.”
After a number of guest appearances, Reese broke into TV full-time with a starring role in the hit 1975-78 Jack Albertson-Freddie Prinze comedy series “Chico and the Man.” Roles on “It Takes Two,” “Crazy Like a Fox,” “Charlie & Co.” and (opposite her good friend Redd Foxx) “The Royal Family.”
She also took starring roles in the features “Harlem Nights” and “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” and appeared in 20 made-for-TV pictures.
Her greatest popularity came as co-star of the inspirational CBS show “Touched by an Angel.” Though the show was axed during its debut 1994-95 season, a letter-writing campaign convinced execs to bring the series back, and Reese prevailed as the heavenly samaritan Tess for a total of nine seasons, winning seven consecutive NAACP Image Awards as best lead actress in a drama and collecting two Emmy nominations and a 1998 Golden Globe nod.
Though she continued to make TV guest appearances and took the occasional film role in the new millennium, she returned to her religious roots as the founding pastor of her own Los Angeles-based church, Understanding Principles for Better Living (or “Up”). In later years, she was frequently billed as Reverend Doctor Della Reese Lett.
She was born Delloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931, in Detroit. She began singing in church as a six-year-old; the glamorous black vocalist-actress Lena Horne was one of the film stars she admired as a girl. By her teens, she was working as a singer in gospel luminary Mahalia Jackson’s unit.
After graduating from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School (later attended by Diana Ross), she briefly attended Wayne State University, but soon moved into music professionally, taking Della Reese as her pro handle.
Like homegrown R&B superstar Jackie Wilson, Reese received prominent exposure during an engagement at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar; her style reflected the influence of such jazz precursors as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.
Signed to Jubilee Records, the indie New York label that launched the doo-wop acts the Orioles and the Cadillacs, Reese scored her first chart success with the 1957 ballad “And That Reminds Me,” which reached No. 12 on the U.S. pop chart.
That song secured her a contract with RCA. She secured the biggest hit of her career out of the box with “Don’t You Know,” and followed it up in 1960 with the similarly styled “Not One Minute More” (No. 16 pop, No. 13 R&B). Her top-charting LP was “Della,” which climbed to No. 35 in ’60.
Though other major chart hits eluded her, Reese recorded prolifically – frequently in a jazz style, and frequently in a live club setting – for RCA and ABC through the ‘60s. She was a popular attraction on the Las Vegas Strip during this era.
Reese got her first acting break from casting director Reuben Cannon, who offered her a guest shot on the youth-oriented cop show “The Mod Squad” in 1968. Roles on such skeins as “Police Woman,” “The Rookies” and “McCloud” followed.
The first series to show off her tart style to full advantage was “Chico and the Man,” in which she portrayed star Albertson’s landlady. The hit NBC show reached an abrupt end with co-star Prinze’s suicide in January 1977.
She subsequently was a familiar player on such successful series as “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “The Love Boat,” “The A-Team” (on which she guested as star Mr. T’s mother), “Night Court,” “MacGyver,” “Designing Women” and “L.A. Law.”
However, it was “Touched by an Angel” that cemented her TV stardom. With co-star Roma Downey, Reese, portraying the acerbic, Cadillac-driving supervising angel Tess, ministered to the spiritual needs of her earthbound “search and rescue cases.” Reese also performed the show’s theme song, “Walk With You.”
After receiving its first-season cancellation reprieve, the unique family-oriented show maintained a devoted audience of fans for nearly a decade, and spawned the spinoff “Promised Land.” Following its final 2002-03 season, it enjoyed syndicated runs on Ion, Hallmark Channel, Up and Me-TV.
By the time “Touched by an Angel” moved into reruns, Reese, an ordained minister since the early ‘80s, was increasingly focused on her religious work, with TV and film appearances largely restricted to guest shots. She announced her retirement from performing in 2014.
Throughout her long career, Reese proved indomitable in the face of serious health crises. In 1979, she suffered a brain aneurysm during a taping of “The Tonight Show,” and weathered two brain surgeries. She collapsed on the set of “Touched by an Angel” in 2002, and later announced she suffered from type 2 diabetes.
Reese’s four marriages included a brief, annulled union with Mercer Ellington, son of jazz great Duke Ellington. She is survived by her husband Franklin Lett, a film producer and concert promoter.
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