Della Reese, the phenomenal vocal powerhouse who later starred as heaven-sent Tess on the television series “Touched By an Angel”, died Sunday evening (Nov.19) at age 86. She was born Delloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931, in Detroit, MI. Reese found her voice singing gospel in her local church and at the age of 13, was selected to sing with famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
She formed her own group, “The Meditation Singers”, in the late 1940s, but her experience with jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan sparked a desire to broaden her musical scope. Now using her famous stage name, she signed a deal with Jubilee Records in 1953, releasing six albums largely composed of jazz standards. Her national recognition would come in 1957 with the release of “And That Reminds Me,” a Top 20 hit and her first global seller. She followed it up with “Don’t You Know?” — which would become her signature song, and a string of hits including “Not One Minute More, “And Now,” “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You),” and “The Most Beautiful Words.
In the late ’60s she began to expand her career from a jazz nightclub act to all-around entertainer by breaking into television. She became a familiar face on the small screen, securing guest spots on a host of shows, including The Mod Squad, The Love Boat, Sanford and Son, MacGyver, Night Court, and The Young and the Restless.
Her short-lived variety series, Della, debuted in 1969, and the following year she became the first black woman to co-host The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson as well as appeared in high-profile miniseries including “The House of Yes” and “Roots: The Next Generations”. It was after a Tonight Show appearance in 1979 that Reese suffered a brain aneurysm that nearly claimed her life. Della also had memorable roles on the shows “Chico and the Man”, “The A-Team” and in the film “Harlem Nights,” the last of which included a comical fight scene with costar Eddie Murphy.
Reese became an ordained minister in the 1980s through the Christian New Thought branch known as Unity, leading her to found her own church, “Understanding Principles for Better Living” (also known as “UP Church”).
Reese’s most notable TV performance came with her role as Tess on the CBS series “Touched by an Angel,” which ran from 1994 to 2003. She would draw on her faith for the role, playing the part of “supervising angel”. Tess’s playful sarcasm and down-to-earth attitude added something of a humorous edge to the wholesome show, and she became its most beloved character. Though the show was primarily met with mixed reviews, it went on to become a huge success. Reese credited the show’s success to its inspirational plot lines.
Following two appearances on the television show Signed, Sealed, Delivered in 2014, Reese decided to retire from acting.
While her official cause of death has not been revealed, the actress was suffering with health complications later in life, including a battle with diabetes. Details of her death were revealed in a statement from Reese’s family and her longtime friend and “Touched by an Angel” co-star Roma Downey:
“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.”
“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.”
Della Reese leaves behind children James, Franklin and Dominique, as well as husband Franklin Lett. She was predeceased by daughter Deloreese.
– Destiny DeJournett