Della Reese, who excelled in the recording arts as well as in motion pictures and television throughout seven decades, died on Nov. 19 at her California home. She was 86.
Reese was perhaps best known over the last few decades as the co-star of “Touched By an Angel,” but she had many memorable performances to her credit primarily in gospel music. Reese was able to deliver lyrics with a steely voice that shifted easily from a commanding growl to a moan. In the period between her gospel career and the rise of rock ‘n roll music, Reese was a mainstay at nightclubs nationwide, most notably in Chicago.
“She really had stage presence, some magic about her,” said jazz pianist/composer Ramsey Lewis. “When she opened her mouth and sang, oh, what a wonderful voice. Not only a wonderful voice, but one-of-a-kind. She was like Dinah Washington or Ella Fitzgerald. When they sang their first two or three notes, you knew –’that’s Ella, that’s Dinah, that’s Della.’”
Roma Downey, who starred with Reese on the popular “Touched By an Angel,” said upon her friend’s passing: “I know heaven has a brand new angel this day.”
Resse was a very popular face on television. In fact, she was the first African American woman to host “The Tonight Show.” In an odd coincidence, Reese was taping the show in 1980 when she suffered a brain aneurysm. In the ensuring years, Reese would be diagnosed with diabetes and became a vocal advocate for awareness and treatment of the disease.
Reese became a singing star with her 1958 hit “Don’t You Know” and by the late 1960s was hosting her own talk show “Della” which ran for 197 episodes. Other hit songs included “In The Still of the Night,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “Time After Time” and, perhaps her biggest hit, “And That Reminds Me” which made the Top 20 and sold in excesses of 1 million units.
On television, Resse was a regular on “Chico and the Man,” once portrayed the mother of Mr T’s character B.A. Baracus on “The A-Team,” and appeared on a variety of shows including “The Mod Squad,” “Police Story,” “McCloud,” “Sanford and Son” (with old friend Redd Foxx), and “The Love Boat.”
Reese and Foxx appeared together in the 1989 film “Harlem Nights” and again on television in the sit-com “The Royal Family.” Additional motion picture appearances included “A Thin Between Love and Hate,” Dinosaur,” “Beauty Shop,” “Me Again” and “Christmas Angel.”
In the 1980s, Reese became an ordained minister and founded her own church, “Understanding Principles for Better Living” which was a denomination of Christian New Thought. The congregation frequently met at First Lutheran Church in Inglewood.
Delloreese Patricia Early was born on July 6, 1931 in /Detroit, Mich. She is survived by her husband, Franklin Lett, and children James, Franklin and Dominique.