RIP: Della Reese

Posted November 21, 2017 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

“Renowned ‘Touched By An Angel ‘ actress, beloved jazz and gospel singer dies at the age of 86

Actress and singer Della Reese, best known for her role as Tess on the hit television show Touched By An Angel, died at her home in Encino, California on November 19 at the age of 86.

“On behalf of her husband, Franklin Lett, and all her friends and family, I share with you the news that our beloved Della Reese has passed away peacefully at her California home last evening surrounded by love,” her costar Roma Downey confirmed to PEOPLE magazine in an exclusive statement. “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.

Born Delloreese Patricia Early in July 1931, Reese began her career singing gospel and was even discovered by Mahalia Jackson. When one of Jackson’s opening acts dropped out, Reese was summoned and helped finish select tour dates in the South. It was during those experiences that Reese learned from Jackson’s work ethic, communication skills and even showmanship, which Reese spoke about on numerous occasions.


After working with Jackson, Reese developed her own gospel group, the Meditation Singers, but later departed the group to focus on the unexpected trials arising in her family, particularly with her mother’s death and her father’s illness. After moving out of her home due to the strictness of her father’s discipline, Reese shifted her singing career to become a popular act in jazz cabarets and jazz lounges, even shortening her stage name to Della Reese.

Della Reese co-hosting the Tonight Show in 1976 / Photo courtesy of Historic Images

Della Reese co-hosting the Tonight Show in 1976 / Photo courtesy of Historic Images

After being inspired by jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn, Reese picked up a solo recording contract with Jubilee Records in 1953, where she recorded six albums. Her first recordings “In the Still of the Night” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep You Warm” opened the door for more opportunities, including working with the infamous Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. But in 1957, Reese landed a career smash with “And That Reminds Me,” which landed in the Top 20 and wound up selling over a million copies. In 1959, RCA signed Reese and netted her more chart success with “Don’t You Know?” a No. 2 pop hit number one on the R&B charts. It too sold over a million copies. Other hits from her tenure with RCA included “Not One Minute More,” “And Now” and “the Most Beautiful Words.”

Jazz remained her strong suit until Reese broadened her horizons as a film and television actress. Appearing on one episode of The Mod Squad in 1968 opened the door for newer opportunities including stints on Hollywood Squares,  Sanford & Son, Welcome Back, Kotter, The Love Boat and Chico and the Man, for which she played in twenty-seven episodes throughout its four entire seasons. These new opportunities were greatly welcomed by Reese. “I like a variety of things,” Reese said in an interview with Emmy TV Legends. “I get bored very easily, and so the more things that are available for me to do, the better I like it.”

In 1969, Reese was given the opportunity by Mike Douglas to host her own talk show, Della!, (also known as The Della Reese Show), which ran for 292 episodes and for one season. She later became the first female guest host to sit in for The Johnny Carson Show. Memorable roles on Night Court, The A-Team and two episodes on 227 kept Reese in demand throughout the 1980’s. By the time Eddie Murphy, now a box office superstar, organized a star-studded reunion of comedian royalty with Harlem Nights, Reese was on top. The film was originally blasted by critics, but became a cult classic and featured epic scenes with Reese and her dear friend Redd Foxx. It was those scenes that stirred the motivation for The Royal Family, a new sitcom starring Foxx and Reese in the lead roles of Al and Victoria Royal. Although the show enjoyed high ratings for its first set of episodes, Foxx’s untimely death — spurred by a heart attack on set — ended the Eddie Murphy-produced show.

Reese’s acting career rebounded when she appeared on nine seasons of CBS’s Touched By an Angel, a 211-episode television series that also featured “Walk With You,” an opening theme song sung by Reese. The supernatural drama was one of CBS’s highest-rated shows, ranking high during season three and remaining in the top until season six. During season four, at its zenith, Angel racked up 21 million viewers. She ended up winning a total of seven Image Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

Reese sang regularly throughout the show’s tenure, and even performed with Luther Vandross on its eight season for which he guest starred.


And as a bit of Della trivia, one of music’s greatest female groups was even named after Reese. Motown legend Martha Reeves was inspired by Reese’s style and went on to name her female vocal group The Vandellas after Reese along with Van Dyke Street in Detroit.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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