Born Delloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931, in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood to Nellie Mitchelle, a cook, and Richard Thaddeus Early, a steel worker and gambler, Della Reese as she came to be known became a hit with the “Touched By an Angel” series viewers on CBS for nine seasons.
Although she became beloved as an actress in the above mentioned production, Reese actually started out as a singer in the entertainment space. By age six, she had begun singing in church and when gospel luminary Mahalia Jackson heard her sing in 1944, she was so smitten she asked her to join her singing unit.
She toured with Jackson on her Southern Tour while just 13 and at age 18, formed the Meditation Singers and became the first performer to take gospel music to the casinos of Las Vegas thanks to television personality Ed Sullivan who helped her get bookings, a rarity for an African-American singer back in the early 1950s.
At age 22, she was the youngest performer to have the vocal range to match the best in jazz music, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan.
Her mother, Nellie, died in 1949 from a cerebral hemorrhage while her father, Richard Early died in 1959. She feuded with her father after her mother’s passing, which led to her moving out of the house at age 18.
Before wealth came, Reese undertook various jobs including directing a young people’s choir in church, being a truck driver, a dental receptionist, and a switchboard girl. She attended and graduated from Cass Technical High School in Detroit, Michigan in 1947 aged 15.
Although she started out in gospel, Reese became a seductive, big-voiced secular music star with her No. 1 R&B and No. 2 pop hit “Don’t You Know” in 1959.
She had the ability and released standard jazz and contemporary pop through the early ‘70s, receiving a Grammy Award nomination.
She hosted a television talk show ‘Della’ from 1969 to 1970 becoming the first African-American actress to do so.
Although she didn’t start acting until she was 36, Reese soon started excelling having transitioned from singing. She got her first acting break from casting director Reuben Cannon, who offered her a guest shot on the youth-oriented cop show “The Mod Squad” in 1968. Roles in “Police Woman,” “The Rookies” and “McCloud” followed.
Then there was “Chico and the Man” series, as well as, roles in successful series such as “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “The Love Boat,” “The A-Team” (on which she guested as star Mr. T’s mother), “Night Court,” “MacGyver,” “Designing Women” and “L.A. Law.”
She also took starring roles in the features “Harlem Nights” and “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” and appeared in 20 made-for-TV pictures.
Her greatest popularity, however, came as co-star of the inspirational CBS show “Touched by an Angel.” She played the heavenly Samaritan Tess winning seven consecutive NAACP Image Awards as best lead actress in a drama and collecting two Emmy nominations and a 1998 Golden Globe nod.
She began her series “Touched by an Angel” (1994) aged 63. Every weekend for nine seasons, she commuted from her Los Angeles house to Salt Lake City, Utah to film. She composed the “Touched by an Angel” theme song “Walk With You”.
She returned to her religious roots as the founding pastor of her own Los Angeles-based church, Understanding Principles for Better Living (or “Up”).
After her final guest-starring role on Signed, Sealed, Delivered (2014) at age 84, she retired from acting. She was married four times. Ms. Reese died on November 19, 2017 aged 86.
Reese received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on July 12, 1994. She is also the recipient of the Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, California.