Della Reese, Famed Singer and Actress, Dies at 86

Della Reese
Della Reese (Courtesy of CBS)

Detroit-born Della Reese, who began singing in the Black church when only six and invited by the legendary Mahalia Jackson to join the gospel star on tour when just 13 years old, died peacefully at her California home on Sunday, Nov. 26.

Reese became famous as a jazz singer in the ’50s and ’60s, later achieving true stardom as an actress after snagging the role of “Tess” on the long-running TV drama “Touched by an Angel.”

CBS, home of the popular television show for which Reese received seven consecutive NAACP Image Awards as best lead actress in a drama, two Emmy nominations and a 1998 Golden Globe nod, described her as an entertainer who always focused on uplifting her audience.

“We will forever cherish her warm embraces and generosity of spirit,” CBS said. “She will be greatly missed. Another angel has gotten her wings.”

Similarly, Roma Downey, who co-starred with Reese on the show, said she felt privileged to have worked alongside the inspirational actress for so many years.

“She was a mother to me. I know heaven has a brand-new angel this day. Della Reese will be forever in our hearts,” Downey said in a statement posted to her Facebook page.

Reese also sang the show’s theme song, “Walk with You.”

Born Delloreese Patricia Early July 6, 1931, she graduated from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School (the same school that Diana Ross later attended) and briefly matriculated at Wayne State University before assuming her stage name, Della Reese and becoming a professional singer. Following another Detroit native, R&B superstar Jackie Wilson, Reese gained noteworthy exposure while performing at the city’s Flame Show Bar, displaying a style reminiscent of jazz legends like Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald.

In 1969, she launched “Della” — the first TV talk show hosted by an African-American woman.

During an interview with the Associated Press in 1997, she commented on her work as a television and film actress.

“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.”

Reese received her 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 other hit TV shows, including “Police Woman,” “The Rookies” and “McCloud,” followed.

After a number of guest appearances, she garnered a full-time, starring role in the TV hit and Freddie Prinze comedy series, “Chico and the Man” (1975-78). On the silver screen, she later starred in two feature films, “Harlem Nights” along with her close friend, comedian Redd Foxx, and “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” as well as 20 made-for-TV pictures.

Throughout her illustrious career from which she retired in 2014, Reese faced and overcame a series of severe 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.

In the early 80s, she returned to her gospel roots, becoming an ordained minister and founding a church in the L.A. area, Understanding Principles for Better Living (or “Up”), where she served as the pastor

Reese’s four marriages included a brief, annulled union with Mercer Ellington, son of jazz great Duke Ellington. She’s survived by her husband Franklin Lett, a film producer and concert promoter.

Singer Dionne Warwick reflected on the life of her friend in a printed statement.

“We have lost another voice that I’m sure God will use in that great heavenly choir.”

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