Della Reese (born Delloreese Patricia Early, July 6, 1932, Detroit, Michigan) is an American actress and singer. She started her career in the 1950s as a gospel, pop and jazz singer and her career really took off with her 1959 hit single "Don't You Know". She subsequently became an actress, best known as playing Tess, the leading role on the television show Touched by an Angel. In the late 1960s, she hosted her own talk show, Della, which ran for 297 performances. Today, she is also an ordained New Thought minister in the Understanding Principles for Better Living Church in Los Angeles, California.
Reese was born in the summer of 1932 in Detroit. She is of African American and Native American (her mother is Cherokee) descent. At only six years old, she began singing in church. From this experience, she became an avid Gospel singer. At the age of thirteen, she was hired to sing with Mahalia Jackson's Gospel group. Afterwards, she formed her own gospel group called 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.
Successful singing career
Reese was discovered by the Gospel great Mahalia Jackson. Reese's big break came when she won a contest, which gave her a week to sing at Detroit's well-known and talked-about 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 great jazz artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday. In 1953, she signed a recording contract with Jubilee Records, for which she recorded six albums. Later that same year, she also joined the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. Her first recordings for Jubilee were songs such as "In the Still of the Night", "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "Time After Time". Although the EP didn't 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, Reese gained chart success with the 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 a new record company, RCA Records, and released her first RCA single called "Don't You Know", which was adapted from Puccini's La Boh??me. It became her biggest hit to date, reaching the #2 spot on the Pop charts, and topping the R&B charts that same year (which was then called the "Black Singles Chart"). Today, the song is widely considered the signature song of her early career.
Reese received a Grammy nomination for her 1960 album, Della. Also in 1960, she released a successful follow-up single called "Not One Minute More (#16), and 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).
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, as well as touring across the country.
Reese continued to record albums in the following decades, and received 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).
In 1969, Reese began a transition into acting work which would eventually lead to her greatest fame. Her first attempt at television stardom was a 1969 eponymously titled variety series, which was canceled after one season.
In 1970, Reese became the first black woman to guest host The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Reese appeared in several TV movies and miniseries' including The House of Yes and Roots: The Next Generations.
She performed in episodic television, both situation comedy and light action dramas. The Season 5 Sanford and Son episode "Della Della Della" featured her performing "Ease On Down the Road" from The Wiz with Redd Foxx). She was a regular on Chico and the Man, and she 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. His death halted production of the series for several months.
Reese also did voice over for the 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 was seen doing a fight scene with Eddie Murphy.
Reese also appeared as a panelist on episodes of the popular television game show Match Game.
She also was featured on That's So Raven in The Four Aces.
On May 18, 2009 she guest starred on the daytime drama The Young and the Restless. She plays the role of Devon's Aunt Virginia Hamilton.
Touched By An Angel
From 1994-2003, Reese portrayed the character of Tess on the inspirational television drama Touched by an Angel. Reese was widely seen as a key component of the show's success.
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. The show often featured a climactic monologue delivered by the angel Monica (portrayed by Roma Downey) 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 balanced the emotional tone of the show, and was portrayed by Reese as down to earth, experienced, and direct. The series introduced Reese to a new young fan base, and added to her appeal with television viewers who remembered her earlier career highlights.
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.
Reese famously had an early brush with death when she accidentally walked into a plate glass door in her home. Sliced so badly by the broken glass, she reportedly required one thousand stitches to close her wounds. She lost most of her blood, and later said she had a "near death" experience in which she saw her mother.
In 1979, after taping a guest spot for The Tonight Show, she suffered a nearly fatal brain aneurysm, but made a full recovery after two operations by noted neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Drake at University Hospital in London, Ontario.
In 1983, she married Franklin Thomas Lett, Jr., a concert producer and writer. They have four adult children: Dr. James Barger, Deloreese Owens, Franklin Lett III, and Dominique Lett-Wirtschafter.
In 2002, Reese announced on Larry King Live that she suffers from Type-2 diabetes. She is a spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association, traveling around the United States to raise awareness about the disorder.
In 2005, Reese was honored by Oprah Winfrey at her Legends Ball ceremony along with 25 other African-American women.
Reese is an ordained minister and currently serves as the senior minister and founder of the Understanding Principles for Better Living Church, an independent "Christian New Thought" congregation, which currently meets in Inglewood, California. In her ministerial work, she is known as the Rev. Dr. Della Reese Lett.
Reese is godmother to the child of Touched by an Angel co-star, Roma Downey. Rev. Reese began February 2009 by giving the invocation at The State of The Black Union, hosted by Tavis Smiley.