The gospel singer who became a TV star
Della Reese 1931–2017
Della Reese had a long and celebrated career as a jazz and gospel singer. From the 1950s to the ’90s, the husky-voiced Detroit native headlined America’s biggest nightclubs, sold millions of records, and frequently filled in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Yet it was as an actress that Reese became most famous, playing Tess—a wise but down-to-earth mentor of angels—in the hit CBS drama Touched by an Angel (1994–2003). For Reese, the transition from singing to acting came naturally. “Every time I sang the blues, I wasn’t blue,” she said. “I was already acting.”
Born into a poor family, Reese “took early to people- watching and to song,” said The Washington Post. She sang about scenes unfolding outside her Detroit home—neighbors having affairs, a husband hitting his wife—until, she said, her mother “had to nail up the window.” Reese became the star soloist in a local junior gospel choir, and at age 13 went on tour with legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. That gig would last for five summers. Her big break came in 1951, when Reese won a weeklong singing residency at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar, said The New York Times. “One week turned into months, a manager spotted her, and she moved to New York City.” Signed by Jubilee Records, Reese had her first Billboard Top 10 hit with the 1957 ballad “And That Reminds Me.” She made her TV acting debut as a nightclub owner on The Mod Squad in 1968, and the following year helmed Della—the first national variety-talk show to be hosted by a black woman. The show was canceled after one season, but Reese went on to star in scores of TV movies and series, including Chico and the Man and The Royal Family.
Touched by an Angel had a “slow start that almost led to cancellation,” said the Los Angeles Times. But the show quickly “grew into a major hit, with ratings in TV’s Top 10 for four of its nine seasons.” Reese, an ordained minister who held services for her California congregation even at the height of her success, never took her fortune for granted. “My mom scrubbed floors, my dad poured steel,” she said. “I had no formal training, just a gift from God. I’ve been blessed.” ■