Della Reese (born Delloreese Patricia Early; July 6, 1931), is an American singer, actress, game show panelist of the 1970s, one-time talk-show hostess and ordained minister. She started her career in the 1950s as a gospel, pop and jazz singer, scoring a hit with her 1959 single "Don't You Know?". In the late 1960s, she had hosted her own talk show, Della, which ran for 197 episodes. Through four decades of acting, she is best known for playing Tess, the lead role on the 1994–2003 television show Touched by an Angel. In more recent times, she became an ordained New Thought minister in the Understanding Principles for Better Living Church in Los Angeles, California.
Della Reese was born Delloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931, in the historic Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, to Nellie (Mitchelle), a Native American cook of the Cherokee tribe, and Richard Thaddeus Early, an African American steelworker. Her mother had also had several children before Reese's birth, none of whom lived with her; hence, Reese grew up as an only child. At six years old, Reese began singing in church. From this experience, she became an avid gospel singer. On weekends in the 1940s, she and her mother would go to the movies independently to watch the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Lena Horne portray glamorous lives on screen. Afterwards, Reese would act out the scenes from the films. In 1944, she began her career directing the young people's choir, after she had nurtured acting plus her obvious musical talent. She was often chosen, on radio, as a regular singer. At the age of 13, she was hired to sing with Mahalia Jackson's gospel group. Delloreese entered Detroit's popular Cass Technical High School (where she attended the same year as Edna Rae Gillooly, later known as Ellen Burstyn). She also continued with her touring with Jackson. With higher grades, she was the first in her family to graduate from high school in 1947, at only 15.
Afterwards, she formed her own gospel group, the Meditation Singers. However, due in part to the death of her mother, and her father's serious illness, Reese had to interrupt her schooling at Wayne State University to help support her family. Faithful to the memory of her mother, Deloreese also moved out of her father's house when she disapproved of him taking up with a new girlfriend. She then took on odd jobs, such as truck driver, dental receptionist, and even elevator operator, after 1949. Performing in clubs, Early soon decided to shorten her name from "Delloreese Early" to "Della Reese."
Reese was discovered by the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and her big break came when she won a contest, which gave her a week to sing at Detroit's well-known Flame Show Bar. Reese remained there for eight weeks. Although her roots were in gospel music, she now was being exposed to and influenced by such famous jazz artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. In 1953, she signed a recording contract with Jubilee Records, for which she recorded six albums. Later that year, she also joined the Hawkins Orchestra. Her first recordings for Jubilee were songs such as "In the Still of the Night" (originally published in 1937), "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "Time After Time" (1947). Although the EP did not enter the charts, it sold 500,000 copies, and the songs were later included on the 1959 album And That Reminds Me.
In 1957, Reese released a single called "And That Reminds Me." After years of performing, she gained chart success with this song. It became a Top Twenty Pop hit and a million-seller record. That year, Reese was voted by Billboard, Cashbox and various other magazines, as "The Most Promising Singer." In 1959, Reese moved to RCA Records and released her first RCA single, called "Don't You Know?," which was adapted fromPuccini's music for La Bohème, specifically, the aria Musetta's Waltz. It became her biggest hit to date, reaching the #2 spot on the Pop charts and topping the R&B charts (then called the "Hot R&B Sides") that year. Eventually, the song came to be widely considered the signature song of her early career. Reese received a Grammy nomination for her 1960 album, Della and then released a successful follow-up single called "Not One Minute More" (#16). She remained on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with the songs "And Now" (#69), "Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)" (#56) and "The Most Beautiful Words" (#67).
In November 1960, Reese appeared in advertisements in Ebony magazine for the newly launched AMI Continental jukebox. Reese recorded regularly throughout the 1960s, releasing singles and several albums. Two of the most significant were The Classic Della (1962) and Waltz with Me, Della (1963), which broadened her fan base internationally. She recorded several jazz-focused albums, including Della Reese Live (1966), On Strings of Blue (1967) and One of a Kind (1978). She also performed in Las Vegas (Nevada) for nine years and toured across the country. Reese continued to record albums in the following decades, receiving two more Grammy nominations in the gospel category for the album Della Reese and Brilliance (1991) and for the live recorded album, My Soul Feels Better Right Now (1999). Motown singer Martha Reeves cites Reese as a major influence and says she named her group The Vandellas after Van Dyke Street in Detroit and Della Reese.
Television and film career
In 1969, she began a transition into acting work which would eventually lead to her greatest fame. Her first attempt at television stardom was a talk show series, Della, which was cancelled after 197 episodes (June 9, 1969 – March 13, 1970).
In 1970, Reese became the first black woman to guest host The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. She appeared in several TV movies and miniseries, was a regular on Chico and the Man and played the mother of B. A. Baracus in The A-Team episode "Lease with an Option to Die." In 1991, she starred opposite Redd Foxx in his final sitcom, The Royal Family, but his death halted production of the series for several months. Reese also did voice-over for the late-1980s animated series A Pup Named Scooby-Doo. In 1989, she starred alongside Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Arsenio Hall in the theatrical release movie Harlem Nights, in which she performed a fight scene with Eddie Murphy. Reese appeared as a panelist on several episodes of the popular television game show Match Game.
Television guest appearances
Reese has had a wide variety of guest-starring roles, beginning with an episode of The Mod Squad. This led to other roles in such series as: The Bold Ones: The New Doctors, Getting Together, Police Woman, Petrocelli, Joe Forrester, Police Story, The Rookies, McCloud, Sanford and Son with old friend Redd Foxx, Vega$, Insight and two episodes of The Love Boat. She also had a recurring role on It Takes Two opposite Richard Crenna and Patty Duke, three episodes of Crazy Like a Fox, four episodes of Charlie & Co. opposite Flip Wilson, 227 with best friend Marla Gibbs, MacGyver, Night Court, Dream On, Designing Women, Picket Fences, That's So Raven and The Young and the Restless. She also had a recurring role as Tess, on Promised Land with Wendy Phillips and Gerald McRaney, Sanford and Son: Season 5, Episode 7 "Della, Della, Della" 1975 and among many others.
Touched by an Angel
After coping with the death of one of her best friends, Redd Foxx, in 1991, she was reluctant to play an older female lead in the inspirational television drama Touched by an Angel, but went ahead and auditioned for the role of "Tess." She wanted to have a one-shot agreement between CBS and producer Martha Williamson, but ordered more episodes. Reese was widely seen as a key component of the show's success. Already starring on Touched by an Angel was the lesser-known Irish actress Roma Downey, who played the role of case worker Tess's angel/employee, Monica. In numerous interviews, there was an on- and off-screen chemistry between both Reese and Downey.
The character of Tess was the angelic supervisor who sent the other angels out on missions to help people redeem their lives and show them God's love, while at the same time, she was sassy and had a no-nonsense attitude. The show often featured a climactic monologue delivered by the angel Monica in which she reveals herself as an angel to a human with the words: "I am an angel sent by God to tell you that He loves you." The character of Tess was portrayed by Reese as down-to-earth, experienced and direct. Reese also sang the show's theme song, "Walk With You," and was featured prominently on the soundtrack album produced in conjunction with the show.
During its first season in 1994, many critics were skeptical about the show, it being the second overtly religious prime-time fantasy series, after Highway to Heaven. The show had a rocky start, low ratings and was cancelled 11 episodes into the first season. However, with the help of a massive letter-writing campaign, the show was resuscitated the following season and became a huge ratings winner for the next seven seasons. At the beginning of the fourth season in 1997, Reese threatened to leave the show because she was making less than her co-stars; CBS ended up raising her salary. Touched by an Angel was cancelled in 2003, but it continued re-running heavily in syndication and on The Hallmark Channel.Roma Downey said of her on- and off-screen relationship with Reese:
- "She's very wise. She's very loving. She can be a little gruff at times, but she's always adoring and adorable. I lost my mother when I was very young, and during my whole adolescence and into my twenties, I'd been looking for a mother figure, and I really think I can say with absolute truth and sincerity that I feel that I finally found her in Della Reese."
Downey later also said:
- "I think I'll just always remember the feel of her neck against my cheek when she hugs me and the love I know that she has for me and the love that I feel for her and the love that she has for God. To know Della is to know that she loves God."
Reese's mother, Nellie Mitchelle Early, died in 1949 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Reese's father, Richard Early, died ten years later. Reese had an adoptive daughter, Deloreese Daniels Owens, in 1961. Owens died on March 14, 2002, after complications stemming from pituitary disease. Reese said about the painful experience, sharing her frustration with the lack of awareness and knowledge of pituitary disorders,
- "When it happened, I thought, 'It's such an odd thing to die from,' because pituitary problems aren't something you hear about. It makes it harder because you don't understand what happened. It seemed so strange and hard to explain. It still is, to be honest."
In 1979, after taping a guest spot for The Tonight Show, she suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm, but made a full recovery after two operations by neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Drake at University Hospital in London, Ontario. In 1983, she married Franklin Thomas Lett, Jr., a concert producer and writer. In 2002, Reese announced on Larry King Live that she had been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. She became a spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association, traveling around the United States to raise awareness about this disorder. In 2005, Reese was honored by Oprah Winfrey at her Legends Ball ceremony, along with 25 other women of African-American descent.
Reese was ordained as a minister in 2010, after serving as the senior minister and founder of the Understanding Principles for Better Living Church, an independent congregation, which currently meets at First Lutheran Church (www.firsting.org) in Inglewood, California. In her ministerial work, she is known as the Rev. Dr. Della Reese Lett.
On July 6, 2011, Reese celebrated her 80th Birthday at the Catalina Jazz Club in Los Angeles, California.
Main article: Della Reese discography
|1975||Psychic Killer||Mrs. Gibson|
|1996||A Thin Line Between Love and Hate||Ma Wright|
|2005||Beauty Shop||Mrs. Towner|
|2007||If I Had Known I Was a Genius||Nana|
|2010||Expecting Mary||Doris Dorkus|
|2012||Meant to Be||Mave|
|1968||The Mod Squad||Paula||Episode: "Find Tara Chapman!"|
|1970||The Bold Ones: The New Doctors||Grace Dayton||Episode: "Killer on the Loose"|
|1973||Voyage of the Yes||Opal Parker||TV film|
|1973||Daddy's Girl||Diane||TV film|
|1974||Twice in a Lifetime||Flo||TV film|
|1974||Police Woman||Tina Thompson||Episode: "Requiem for Bored Wives"|
|1974||McCloud||Police Sg.t Gladys Harris||Episode: "This Must Be the Alamo"|
|1975||Petrocelli||Angela Damon||Episode: "Once Upon a Victim"|
|1975||Cop on the Beat||Claudine||TV film|
|1975||The Rookies||Landers||Episode: "Ladies Day"|
|1975-1978||Chico and the Man||Della Rogers||Recurring role (27 episodes)|
|1976||McCloud||Police Sgt. Gladys Harris||Episode: "The Day New York Turned Blue"|
|1976||Medical Center||Capt. Sykes||Episode: "Major Annie, MD"|
|1976||Flo's Place||Flo||TV film|
|1976||Nightmare in Badham County||Sarah||TV film|
|1979||Welcome Back, Kotter||Mrs. Tremaine||Episodes: "Come Back, Little Arnold", "The Gang Show"|
|1980||Insight||Judge Roberta Lynn||Episode: "God in the Dock"|
|1982||The Love Boat||Millie Washington||2 episodes|
|1982-1983||It Takes Two||Judge Caroline Phillips||Recurring role (5 episodes)|
|1985||The A-Team||Mrs. Baracus||Episode: "Lease with an Option to Die"|
|1985-1986||Crazy Like a Fox||Nurse Flood||Episodes: "Fox Hunt", "Is There a Fox in the House?", "A Fox at the Races"|
|1986||Charlie & Co.||Aunt Rachel||Recurring role (4 episodes)|
|1986||ABC Afterschool Special||Aunt Faith||Episode: "The Gift of Amazing Grace"|
|1987||227||Rita||Episode: "Far from the Tree"|
|1989||Night Court||Aunt Ruth||Episode: "Auntie Maim"|
|1990||227||Grace||Episode: "Where Do We Go from Here?"|
|1990||The Young Riders||Stagecoach Sally||Episode: "Born to Hang"|
|1990||The Kid Who Loved Christmas||Alicia Slater||TV film|
|1990||MacGyver||Mama Colton||Episode: "Squeeze Play"|
|1991||MacGyver||Mama Colton||Episode: "The Coltons"|
|1991||Married People||Annette||Episode: "Dance Ten, Friends Zero"|
|1991-1992||The Royal Family||Victoria Royal||Main role (15 episodes)|
|1992||Dream On||Receptionist||Episode: "No Deposit, No Return"|
|1992||You Must Remember This||Ella DuChamps (voice)||TV film|
|1993||Designing Women||Mrs. Toussant||Episode: "Wedding Redux"|
|1993||L.A. Law||Lucille Lake||Episode: "Vindaloo in the Villows"|
|1993||Picket Fences||Naomi Grand||Episode: "The Lullaby League"|
|1994-2003||Touched by an Angel||Tess||Main role (211 episodes)|
|1996-1998||Promised Land||Tess||Recurring role (6 episodes)|
|1997||Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child||The Blues Fairy (voice)||Episode: "Pinocchio"|
|1997||A Match Made in Heaven||Katie Beale||TV film|
|1997||Miracle in the Woods||Lilly Cooper||TV film|
|1998||Emma's Wish||Mona Washburn||TV film|
|1998||Mama Flora's Family||Nana Fleming||TV film|
|1999||The Secret Path||Honey||TV film|
|1999||Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters First 100 Years||Martha Logan||TV film|
|1999||Anya's Bell||Anya Herpick||TV film|
|2000||The Moving of Sophia Myles||Sophia Myles||TV film|
|2006||That's So Raven||Miss Rhonnie Wilcox||Episode: "The Four Aces"|
|2009||The Young and the Restless||Aunt Virginia||TV series|
|2010||Detroit 1-8-7||Lorraine Henderson||Episode: "Shelter"|
|2011||Hallelujah||Dulcie Prejean||TV film|
|2012||Christmas Angel||Elsie Waybright||TV film|
|2013||Dear Secret Santa||Linda||TV film|
|2013||Miracle at Gate 213||Alma Peddington||TV film|
|2014||Signed, Sealed, Delivered||Cora Brandt||Episodes: "Soulmates", "The Masterpiece"|
Awards and nominations
- 1994: Hollywood Walk of Fame: 7060 Hollywood Boulevard – Television
- 1996: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
- 1997: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
- 1998: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
- 1999: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
- 2000: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
- 2001: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
- 2002: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
- 1960: Grammy Award – Don't You Know
- 1961: Grammy Award – Della (Album)
- 1991: Grammy Award – Della Reese and Brilliance
- 1997: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
- 1997: Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
- 1998: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
- 1998: Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Made for TV Series – Touched by an Angel
- 1998: Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
- 1999: Grammy Award – My Soul Feels Better Right Now
- 2000: Annie Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement for Voice Acting By a Female Performer in an Animated Feature – Dinosaur
Della Reese (born Delloreese Patricia Early) (b. July 6, 1931, Detroit, Michigan), an American singer, actress, game show panelist of the 1970s, one-time talk-show hostess and ordained minister. She started her career in the 1950s as a gospel, pop and jazz singer, scoring a hit with her 1959 single "Don't You Know?". In the late 1960s, she had hosted her own talk show, Della, which ran for 197 episodes. Through four decades of acting, she is best known for playing Tess, the lead role on the 1994–2003 television show Touched by an Angel. In later years, she became an ordained New Thought minister in the Understanding Principles for Better Living Church in Los Angeles, California.