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Renowned as both a television star and a top-flight interpreter of jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, and straight-ahead pop music, Della Reese's many talents have ensured a long, varied, and legendary show biz career. In addition to being nominated for both an Emmy and a Grammy and receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Reese is also an ordained minister in the Universal Foundation for Better Living, an association of churches she helped found in the early '80s.
Born Deloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931, the young Reese began singing in the Baptist church choir in her hometown of Detroit at age six. In 1945, having developed quite rapidly, she caught the ear of legendary gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, who invited Reese to join her touring choir; Reese did so for the next five summers. Upon entering Wayne State University to study psychology, Reese formed a women's gospel group, the Meditation Singers, but her college career was cut short by the death of her mother and her father's serious illness. Reese worked odd jobs to help support the rest of her family; she also continued to perform with the Meditation Singers and various other gospel groups. Encouraged by her pastor, Reese began singing in night clubs in hopes of getting a singing career off the ground; recently married to a factory worker named Vermont Adolphus Bon Taliaferro, her name was too long to fit on marquees, and she eventually arrived at her performing alias by splitting up her first name. After impressing a New York agent, who promptly signed her, Reese moved to New York and joined the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra in 1953. A year later, she had a recording contract with Jubilee, for whom she scored hits like "And That Reminds Me," a 1957 million-seller.
Switching to RCA Victor, Reese landed her biggest hit in 1959 with "Don't You Know?," a song adapted from Puccini's La Bohème; this cemented her career, leading not only to plentiful appearances on variety shows, but successful nightclub tours of the country and eventually nine years of performances in Las Vegas, as well as recording contracts with a variety of labels over the next few decades.
Building on her previous variety show experience, Reese made a small bit of television history in 1969 when she became the first woman to guest-host The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Later that year, she became the first black woman to host her own variety show, the syndicated Della, which ran until 1970. Following its cancellation, Reese returned to her night club tours, often putting in guest appearances on television shows like The Mod Squad, Sanford and Son, and Chico and the Man; after three prior failed marriages, Reese also found a lasting relationship with producer Franklin Lett, whom she married in 1978.
On October 3, 1980, while taping a song for The Tonight Show, Reese suffered a brain aneurysm which nearly proved fatal; however, thanks to a successful operation, she was able to make a full recovery. She kept up her singing career and appeared on television shows like Designing Women, L.A. Law, and Picket Fences, as well as the Eddie Murphy films Harlem Nights and The Distinguished Gentleman. Most recently, Reese starred in the Redd Foxx sitcom The Royal Family from 1991-1992, and in the inspirational drama series Touched by an Angel.
Delloreese Patricia Early, known professionally as Della Reese (born July 6, 1931), is an American actress, singer, game show panelist of the 1970s, one-time talk-show hostess and ordained minister. She started her career in the 1950s as a gospel, pop and jazz singer, scoring a hit with her 1959 single "Don't You Know?". In the late 1960s, she had hosted her own talk show, Della, which ran for 197 episodes. Through four decades of acting, she is best known for playing Tess, the lead role on the 1994–2003 television show Touched by an Angel. In more recent times, she became an ordained New Thought minister in the Understanding Principles for Better Living Church in Los Angeles, California.Andrea LeVasseur (2009). "Della Reese: Biography". All Movie Guide. MSN. Retrieved 2009-12-27. "Della (1969)". Internet Movie Database. 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-27. (Video). Della Reese interview with Tavis Smiley. June 12, 2009. Tavis Smiley Late Night. PBS.
Reese was born Delloreese Patricia Early in the historic Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, in 1931, to Nellie Mitchelle, a Native American cook of the Cherokee tribe, and an African American steelworker Richard Thaddeus Early. Her mother also had several older children, before Reese's birth, all of whom did not live 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. Afterwards, Reese would act out the 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. Delloreese entered Detroit's popular 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 was the first in her family to graduate from high school in 1947, at only 15.
Afterwards, she formed her own gospel group, 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. Faithful to the memory of her mother, Deloreese also 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 even elevator operator, after 1949. Performing in clubs, Early soon decided to shorten her name from "Delloreese Early" to "Della Reese.""Della Reese Biography". filmreference. 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-27. Hilary de Vries (June 14, 1998). "Della Reese: Earning Her Wings". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-12-27. http://www.biography.com/
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 famous 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" (1937), "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "Time After Time" (1947). Although the EP did not 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, 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 Puccini's music for La Bohème, specifically, the aria Musetta's Waltz. It became her biggest hit to date, reaching the #2 spot on the Pop charts and topping the R&B charts (then called the "Hot R&B Sides") that year. Eventually, the song came to be widely considered the signature song of her early career. Reese received a Grammy nomination for her 1960 album, Della and then released a successful follow-up single called "Not One Minute More" (#16). 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).
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 (Nevada) 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."Music". dellareese.com. 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-27.
Television and film career
In 1969, she began a transition into acting work which would eventually lead to her greatest fame. 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 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 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 performed a fight scene with Eddie Murphy. Reese appeared as a panelist on several episodes of the popular television game show Match Game.
Television guest appearances
Reese has 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$, Insight and two episodes of The Love Boat. She also had a recurring role on It Takes Two opposite Richard Crenna and Patty Duke, 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, That's So Raven and The Young and the Restless. She also had a recurring role as Tess, on Promised Land with Wendy Phillips and Gerald McRaney, among many others.
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 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. Touched by an Angel was cancelled in 2003, but it continued re-running heavily in syndication and on The Hallmark Channel. Roma Downey said of her on- and off-screen relationship with Reese:"She's very wise. She's very loving. She can be a little gruff at times, but she's always adoring and adorable. I lost my mother when I was very young, and during my whole adolescence and into my twenties, I'd been looking for a mother figure, and I really think I can say with absolute truth and sincerity that I feel that I finally found her in Della Reese."
Downey later also said:"I think I'll just always remember the feel of her neck against my cheek when she hugs me and the love I know that she has for me and the love that I feel for her and the love that she has for God. To know Della is to know that she loves God." "Della" Talk Show on IMDb Retrieved February 21, 2013. http://www.biography.com
Reese's mother, Nellie Mitchelle Early, died in 1949 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Reese's father, Richard Early, died ten years later. Reese had an adoptive daughter, Deloreese Daniels Owens, in 1961. Owens died on March 14, 2002, after complications stemming from pituitary disease. Reese said about the painful experience, sharing her frustration with the lack of awareness and knowledge of pituitary disorders,"When it happened, I thought, 'It's such an odd thing to die from,' because pituitary problems aren't something you hear about. It makes it harder because you don't understand what happened. It seemed so strange and hard to explain. It still is, to be honest."
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 operations by neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Drake at University Hospital in London, Ontario. In 1983, she married Franklin Thomas Lett, Jr., a concert producer and writer. In 2002, Reese announced on Larry King Live that she had been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. She became a spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association, traveling around the United States to raise awareness about this disorder. In 2005, Reese was honored by Oprah Winfrey at her Legends Ball ceremony, along with 25 other women of African-American descent.
Reese was ordained as a minister in 2010, after serving as the senior minister and founder of the Understanding Principles for Better Living Church, an independent congregation, which currently meets at First Lutheran Church (www.firsting.org) in Inglewood, California. In her ministerial work, she is known as the Rev. Dr. Della Reese Lett."Deloreese Daniels Owens's Story", Cushing's. "Ministry". dellareese.com. 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-27. "Ministry: Biography". Understanding Principles for Better Living Church. 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-27.