Della Reese, who segued from a gospel, pop and jazz singer into a successful acting career, died Sunday evening at the age of 86.
“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,” said her “Touched By an Angel” co-star Roma Downey in a statement. “She was an incredible wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and pastor, as well as an award-winning actress and singer. Through her life and work she touched and inspired the lives of millions of people.”
Born Delloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931 in the historic Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, 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. 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” (originally published in 1937), “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “Time After Time” (1947).
In 1969, she began a transition into acting work as well as hosting her own talk show, “Della,” which aired for less than one year. In 1970, Reese became the first black woman to guest host “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” and she began guest-starring on various TV series (including a recurring role on NBC sitcom “Chico and the Man” from 1975 to 1978).
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”). In 1991, she had a one season stint, initially opposite Redd Foxx, in CBS comedy “The Royal Family.” And she began her nine season role as Tess on “Touched By An Angel” in 1994.
Her final TV appearance was a two episode guest spot on Hallmark Channel series “Singed, Sealed and Delivered” in 2014.