Born Name: Delloreese Patricia Early
Date of Birth: July 6, 1931
Place of Birth: Black Bottom, Detroit, Michigan, United States
Died: November 19, 2017 (aged 86), Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Education: Wayne State University (attended)
Occupation: Singer, actress, producer, minister
Spouse(s): Vermont Taliaferro(m. 1952; div. 1958), Leroy Basil Gray(m. 1959; div. 1961), Mercer Ellington(m. 1961; ann. 1961), Franklin Lett Jr. (m. 1983–2017)
Children: Deloreese Daniels, Franklin Reese, Dominique Reese, James Reese
Genres: R&B, pop, jazz, gospel, traditional pop
Labels: Jubilee, RCA
Associated acts: Mahalia Jackson,Erskine Hawkins,Albertina Walker,Aretha Franklin,Dorothy Norwood,Cissy Houston
Delloreese Patricia Early (July 6, 1931 – November 19, 2017), known professionally as Della Reese, was an American jazz and gospel singer, actress, and ordained minister whose career spanned seven decades. Her long career began as a singer, scoring a hit with her 1959 single "Don't You Know?". In the late 1960s she hosted her own talk show, Della, which ran for 197 episodes. From 1975 she also starred in films, including playing opposite Redd Foxx in Harlem Nights (1989), Martin Lawrence in A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (1996) and Elliott Gould in Expecting Mary (2010). Reese achieved continuing success in the religious television drama Touched by an Angel (1994–2003), in which she played the leading role of Tess.
Della Reese was born Delloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931, in the historic Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, to Richard Thaddeus Early, an African American steelworker, and Nellie (Mitchelle), a Native American cook of the Cherokee tribe. Her mother had 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. Afterward, Reese would act out 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. Reese entered Detroit's 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 became in 1947 the first in her family to graduate from high school, aged 15.
After this she formed her own gospel group, the Meditation Singers. However, due in part to her father's serious illness and the death of her mother, Reese had to interrupt her schooling at Wayne State University to help support her family. Faithful to the memory of her mother, Delloreese 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 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 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). The songs were later included on the album And That Reminds Me (1959).
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 from Giacomo Puccini's music for La bohème, specifically the aria "Quando m'en vo'" (Musetta's Waltz). It became her biggest hit to date, reaching the number 2 spot on the pop charts and topping the R&B charts (then called the "Hot R&B Sides") that year. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA. Eventually, the song came to be widely considered the signature song of her early career. She then released a successful follow-up single called "Not One Minute More" (number 16). She remained on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with "And Now" (number 69). In 1960 she released "Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)" (number 56) which was drawn from her Grammy-nominated album Della. The album rose in the pop album charts to number 35.
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 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. In 2017 she was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
Television and film career
In 1969, Reese began a transition into acting work which would eventually lead to her highest profile. 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 her old friend 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 Hanna-Barbera animated series A Pup Named Scooby-Doo on ABC. In 1989, she starred alongside Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx in the film Harlem Nights, in which she performed a fight scene with Eddie Murphy. Reese appeared as a panelist on several episodes of the television game show Match Game, and Latrice Royale impersonated Reese on season 4 of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars in the "Snatch Game of Love", a Match Game and The Dating Game parody.
Television guest appearances
Reese 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$, and Insight. She featured in two episodes of The Love Boat, 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, Disney Channel's That's So Raven, and The Young and the Restless. She also had a recurring role in It Takes Two opposite Richard Crenna and Patty Duke.
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 the network 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. In 2000, her health problems became obvious when she collapsed on the set and was hospitalized. Touched by an Angel was cancelled in 2003, but it continued re-running heavily in syndication and on Ion Television (formerly PAX-TV), The Hallmark Channel, Up, and later MeTV. Roma Downey said of her on- and off-screen relationship with Reese:
Downey later also said:
In 2015, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars was dedicated to Reese. Della Reese was the godmother of Roma Downey's daughter Reilly Marie. Reese officiated at the marriage ceremony of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett in the absence of Downey's late mother.
Reese's mother, Nellie Mitchelle Early, died in 1949 of an intracerebral hemorrhage. Reese's father, Richard Early, died ten years later. Reese had an adoptive daughter whom she acquired from a family member unable to care for her, named Delorese Daniels Owens, in 1961. Owens died on March 14, 2002. She died from complications stemming from pituitary disease. Reese said of the experience, sharing her frustration with the lack of awareness and knowledge of pituitary disorders:
In 1952, Reese married factory worker Vermont Adolphus Bon Taliaferro, nineteen years her senior, and adopted the stage name Pat Ferro for a week, before introducing the stage name she used for the rest of her life—though sources differ as to whether this was after the failure of the marriage, or simply a show-business decision. A second marriage ceremony, on December 28, 1959, to accountant Leroy Basil Gray, who had two children by a previous marriage, was kept secret for some time. This marriage either ended in divorce or was annulled on the basis that Gray's previous divorce was invalid. Reese appears to have been briefly married to Mercer Ellington (who was then her manager) in 1961, before this was annulled later that year due to Ellington's Mexican divorce being ruled invalid. In 1983, she married Franklin Thomas Lett, Jr., a concert producer and writer.
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 surgeries by neurosurgeon Charles Drake at University Hospital in London, Ontario. In 2016, shortly after her 85th birthday, Reese was said to be in poor health, and had undergone multiple surgeries. She further disclosed that she had neglected her health for years, which had contributed to her developing diabetes. After her last appearance in Signed, Sealed, Delivered, she retired from acting. While Reese sometimes used a wheelchair, she avoided using one often, because it would make her condition worse.
In the 1980s, Reese was ordained a minister through the Christian New Thought branch known as Unity after serving as the senior minister and founder of her own church, Understanding Principles for Better Living. The "Up Church" is under Universal Foundation for Better Living, a denomination of Christian New Thought founded by Rev. Johnnie Colemon, a close friend of Rev. Reese-Lett. In her ministerial work, she was known as the Rev. Dr. Della Reese Lett.
Reese died on November 19, 2017, at her Los Angeles, California, home at the age of 86. No cause was given, although she had suffered from Type 2-diabetes.
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Della Reese among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal Studios fire.
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