Deadline is reporting that actress and singer Della Reese has passed away at the age of 86. She was born in Detroit in 1931 and named Delloreese Patricia Early. She began singing in her church at the age of six and became a skilled gospel singer, often heard on the radio when she was still a child. When she was only 13 she was asked to join Mahalia Jackson’s gospel group and toured with them while in high school, which she graduated at only 15. She attended Wayne University, but had to leave when her mother died to tend to her ailing father.
She continued to sing in clubs, eventually shortening her professional name to Della Reese. In 1953 she signed with Jubilee Records, recording six albums for them over time. She continued singing gospel, but began to incorporate jazz as well. In 1957 she recorded the single All That Reminds Me which became a top 20 hit and sold over a million records. She was voted “Most Promising Singer” by several magazines, including Billboard. In 1959 she moved to RCA and by 1960 she had been nominated for a Grammy for her self titled album Della.
In 1969 Reese began a television hosting career with a talk show – also titled Della – that ran for a year. She was the first African American woman to guest host The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. She began her acting career at the time, guest starring on an episode of The Mod Squad and appearing in a number of made for TV movies. She eventually joined the cast of Chico and the Man, appearing in a total of 27 episodes. She also appeared in a single but memorable episode of The A-Team as the mother of Mr. T’s character B. A. Baracus, and showed up in two episodes each of The Love Boat and Welcome Back Kotter.
In the early ’80s, Reese was recurring as a judge on the series It Takes Two and was seen in multiple episodes of Crazy Like a Fox and Charlie and Co. She lent her voice to A Pup Named Scooby Doo and was seen on an episode of Night Court as well. And her religious upbringing and gospel singing had a strong influence on several roles she played, including an after school special called The Gift of Amazing Grace. Perhaps most famously in the decade, she appeared in the Eddie Murphy movie Harlem Nights.
In the ’90s Reese’s acting career reached its greatest heights. After guest starring on popular shows like MacGyver, Designing Women, and Picket Fences, she received the life changing role of Tess on Touched by an Angel. For nine years, Reese appeared on the show as an angel who trained another angel – Monica, played by Roma Downey – in how to help people. The actresses remained good friends, and Reese – an ordained minister – officiated Downey’s wedding.
After Touched by an Angel ended in 2003 Reese continued to appear in made for TV movies, which often had religious themes. She also continued to guest star on various TV shows, including That’s So Raven, The Young and the Restless, and Bates Motel.
Friend and former co-star Roma Downey released a statement about Reese’s death:
“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. 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. 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. Rest In Peace, sweet angel. We love you.”
CBS – which aired Touched by an Angel – also released an official statement:
“We’re deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Della Reese. She was a multi-talented, award-winning performer who shined brightly on soundstages and in concert halls. For nine years, we were privileged to have Della as part of the CBS family when she delivered encouragement and optimism to millions of viewers as Tess on Touched By An Angel. We will forever cherish her warm embraces and generosity of spirit. She will be greatly missed. Another angel has gotten her wings.”
Reese is survived by her husband and three children.
R.I.P. Della Reese: July 6, 1931 – November 19, 2017
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