Della Reese is an American actress, singer, game show panelist of the 1970's, 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 Dont You Know. In her four decades of acting, she gained a whole new generation of fans in the 1990s, playing Tess, the leading role on the television show Touched By An Angel. In the late 1960s, she hosted her own talk show, Della, which ran for 297 episodes!
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 and talked-about 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 great 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 Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. Her first recordings for Jubilee were songs such as In the Still of the Night (1937 song), Ive Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, and Time after Time (1947 song). Although the EP didnt 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 a RCA Records, and released her first RCA single called Dont You Know, which was adapted from Puccini's music for La Bohme; 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, which were then called the Black Singles Charts, 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 followp single called Not One Minute More (#16), and she remained on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with the songs And Now (#69), 'someday (Youll Want Me to Want You) (#56) and The Most Beautiful Words (#67).
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 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).
In 1969, Reese began a transition into acting work which would eventually lead to her greatest fame. Her first attempt at television stardom was a 1969 eponymously titled variety series, which was canceled after one season.
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 including The House of Yes and Roots: The Next Generations.
She was a regular on Chico and the Man, and she 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 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 was seen doing a fight scene with Eddie Murphy.
Reese appeared as a panelist on several episodes of the popular television game show Match Game and was featured on That's So Raven in The Four Aces. On May 18, 2009, she guest starred on the daytime drama The Young and the Restless as Virginia Hamilton.
Reese also had a wide variety of guest-starring roles, beginning with an episode of The Mod Squad. This led to other roles such 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, 2 episodes of The Love Boat. She also had a recurring role on It Takes Two opposite Richard Crenna and Patty Duke, 3 episodes of Crazy Like a Fox, 4 episodes of Charlie & Co. opposite Flip Wilson, 227 with best friend Marla Gibbs, MacGyver, Night Court, Dream On, Designing Women, Picket Fences. She also had a recurring role as Tess, on Promised Land with Wendy Phillips and Gerald McRaney, among many others.
After coping with the death of one of her best friends, Redd Foxx, in 1991, she was reluctant to have an older female lead in Touched by an Angel, but went ahead and auditioned for Tess. She wanted to have a one-shot agreement between CBS and producer Martha Williamson, but ordered more episodes. She portrayed the character of Tess on the inspirational television drama Touched by an Angel. Reese was widely seen as a key component of the show's success.
Already starring on Touched by an Angel was an unfamiliar Irish actress and future wife of reality television shows producer (Mark Burnett), Roma Downey, who played the role of a case worker Tess's angel/employee, Monica. In numerous interviews, there was an on- and off-screen chemistry of both Reese & Downey, as the two clicked as second mother and second daughter of any other 1990s TV series, when Reese was playing the boss whilst Downey played employee.
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, had no-nonsense, but always had an 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 balanced the emotional tone of the show, and was portrayed by Reese as down to earth, experienced, and direct.
The series introduced Reese to a new young fan base, and added to her appeal with television viewers who remembered her earlier career highlights. 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 had thought the drama that was too skeptical, a second prime-time fantasy series (after Highway to Heaven, being the first) that talked about God. The program featured kind-hearted angels who appeared on Earth, and helped guide people in their toughest moments. The show also had a rocky start, and was not a ratings winner, hence, they canceled it after the first season with only 11 episodes, but with the help of die hard fans and massive letter-writing, the show resuscitated, the following season, and became a huge ratings winner for the next seven seasons. The same year, unfamiliar actor John Dye played Andrew. Though he was a handsome actor, there had been threats to the familiar TV star. At the beginning of the fourth season in 1997, unlike her co-stars making more money, Reese was offered a lesser salary, hence, she was threatened to leave the Angel set. Angry enough that she fought with both CBS and Williamson, she continued playing Tess until the end, having raised her salary.
During its final season in 2002, Touched by an Angel CBS decided to cancel the show after nine seasons and 212 episodes. Despite the show being cancelled, it continued re-running heavily into syndication and on The Hallmark Channel.
Roma Downey said of her on- and off-screen relationship with Reese, who had adopted her as a daughter: '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, Id 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. The last thing Downey said about her TV boss/mother was that she could be as loving as her mentor's Jesus: I think Ill 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.