Reese's long career began as a singer, scoring a hit with her 1959 single "Don't You Know?". In the late 1960s, she had hosted her own talk show, Della, which ran for 197 episodes. She also starred in films beginning in 1975, and included playing opposite Redd Foxx in Harlem Nights (1989), Martin Lawrence in A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (1996) and Elliott Gould in Expecting Mary (2010). She achieved continuing success in the television religious fantasy drama Touched by an Angel (1994–2003), in which Reese played the leading role of Tess.
Della Reese was born Delloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931, in the historic Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, to Richard Thaddeus Early, an African American steelworker and Nellie (Mitchelle), a Native American cook of the Cherokee tribe. Her mother also had several children before Reese's birth, none of whom lived with her; hence, Reese grew up as an only child. At six years old, Reese began singing in church. From this experience, she became an avid gospel singer. On weekends in the 1940s, she and her mother would go to the movies independently to watch the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Lena Horne portray glamorous lives on screen. Afterwards, Reese would act out the scenes from the films. In 1944, she began her career directing the young people's choir, after she had nurtured acting plus her obvious musical talent. She was often chosen, on radio, as a regular singer. At the age of 13, she was hired to sing with Mahalia Jackson's gospel group. Delloreese entered Detroit's popular Cass Technical High School (where she attended the same year as Edna Rae Gillooly, later known as Ellen Burstyn). She also continued with her touring with Jackson. With higher grades, she was the first in her family to graduate from high school in 1947, at only 15.
Afterwards, she formed her own gospel group, the Meditation Singers. However, due in part to the death of her mother, and her father's serious illness, Reese had to interrupt her schooling at Wayne State University to help support her family. Faithful to the memory of her mother, Deloreese also moved out of her father's house when she disapproved of him taking up with a new girlfriend. She then took on odd jobs, such as truck driver, dental receptionist, and even elevator operator, after 1949. Performing in clubs, Early soon decided to shorten her name from "Delloreese Early" to "Della Reese."
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. Reese remained there for eight weeks. Although her roots were in gospel music, she now was being exposed to and influenced by such famous 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 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). The songs were later included on the album And That Reminds Me (1959).
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 RCA Records and released her first RCA single, called "Don't You Know?," which was adapted from Puccini's music for La Bohème, 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 (then called the "Hot R&B Sides") that year. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA. 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 follow-up single called "Not One Minute More" (#16). She remained on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with the songs "And Now" (#69), "Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)" (#56) and "The Most Beautiful Words" (#67).
In November 1960, Reese appeared in advertisements in Ebony magazine for the newly launched AMI Continental jukebox. 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 (Nevada) 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). Motown singer Martha Reeves cites Reese as a major influence and says she named her group The Vandellas after Van Dyke Street in Detroit and Della Reese.
In 1969, she began a transition into acting work which would eventually lead to her greatest fame. Her first attempt at television stardom was a talk show series, Della, which was cancelled after 197 episodes (June 9, 1969 – March 13, 1970).
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, was a regular on Chico and the Man and played the mother of B. A. Baracus in The A-Team episode "Lease with an Option to Die." In 1991, she starred opposite old friend, 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 late-1980s animated series A Pup Named Scooby-Doo. In 1989, she starred alongside Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx in the theatrical release movie Harlem Nights, in which she performed a fight scene with Eddie Murphy. Reese appeared as a panelist on several episodes of the popular television game show Match Game.
Reese has had a wide variety of guest-starring roles, beginning with an episode of The Mod Squad. This led to other roles in such series 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 and two episodes of The Love Boat. She also had a recurring role on It Takes Two opposite Richard Crenna and Patty Duke, three episodes of Crazy Like a Fox, four episodes of Charlie & Co. opposite Flip Wilson, 227 with best friend Marla Gibbs, MacGyver, Night Court, Dream On, Designing Women, Picket Fences, That's So Raven and The Young and the Restless. She has also been featured (by proxy) on the McElroy family Dungeons and Dragons podcast, The Adventure Zone, after a magical, kickass deity was named after her.
After coping with the death of one of her best friends, Redd Foxx, in 1991, she was reluctant to play an older female lead in the inspirational television drama Touched by an Angel, but went ahead and auditioned for the role of "Tess." She wanted to have a one-shot agreement between CBS and producer Martha Williamson, but ordered more episodes. Reese was widely seen as a key component of the show's success. Already starring on Touched by an Angel was the lesser-known Irish actress Roma Downey, who played the role of case worker Tess's angel/employee, Monica. In numerous interviews, there was an on- and off-screen chemistry between both Reese and Downey.
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 and had a no-nonsense 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 was portrayed by Reese as down-to-earth, experienced and direct. 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 were skeptical about the show, it being the second overtly religious prime-time fantasy series, after Highway to Heaven. The show had a rocky start, low ratings and was cancelled 11 episodes into the first season. However, with the help of a massive letter-writing campaign, the show was resuscitated the following season and became a huge ratings winner for the next seven seasons. At the beginning of the fourth season in 1997, Reese threatened to leave the show because she was making less than her co-stars; CBS ended up raising her salary. Touched by an Angel was cancelled in 2003, but it continued re-running heavily in syndication and on The Hallmark Channel. Roma Downey said of her on- and off-screen relationship with Reese:
"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, I'd 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."
Downey later also said:
"I think I'll 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."
Reese's mother, Nellie Mitchelle Early, died in 1949 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Reese's father, Richard Early, died ten years later. Reese had an adoptive daughter whom she acquired from a family member unable to care for her, named Deloreese Daniels Owens, in 1961. Owens died on March 14, 2002. It was never released whether she died from suicide or from implications stemming from pituitary disease. Reese said about the painful experience, sharing her frustration with the lack of awareness and knowledge of pituitary disorders,
"When it happened, I thought, 'It's such an odd thing to die from,' because pituitary problems aren't something you hear about. It makes it harder because you don't understand what happened. It seemed so strange and hard to explain. It still is, to be honest."
In 1952 Reese married factory worker Vermont Adolphus Bon Taliaferro, nineteen years her senior, and adopted the stage name Pat Ferro for a week, before introducing her current name - though sources differ as to whether this was after the failure of the marriage, or simply a show-business decision.
A second marriage ceremony, on 28 December 1959, to accountant Leroy Basil Gray, who had two children by a previous marriage, was kept secret for some time. This marriage either ended in divorce or was annulled on the basis that Gray's previous divorce was invalid.
Reese appears to have been briefly married to Mercer Ellington (who was then her manager) in 1961, before this was annulled due to Ellington's Mexican divorce being ruled invalid.
In 1979, after taping a guest spot for The Tonight Show, she suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm, but made a full recovery after two surgeries by neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Drake at University Hospital in London, Ontario. In 1983, she married Franklin Thomas Lett, Jr., a concert producer and writer. In 2002, Reese announced on Larry King Live that she had been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes, but didn't come as a surprise considering what she ate and what her diet consisted of, as well as her weight. She loved cake, especially chocolate. She became a spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association, traveling around the United States to raise awareness about this disorder. In 2005, Reese was honored by Oprah Winfrey at her Legends Ball ceremony, along with 25 other black women.
In the 1980s Reese was ordained as a minister through the Christian New Thought branch known as Unity, after serving as the senior minister and founder of her own church, Understanding Principles for Better Living. The "Up Church" is under Universal Foundation For Better Living, a denomination of Christian New Thought founded by Rev. Johnnie Colemon, a close friend of Rev. Reese-Lett. In 2014, the IRS Criminal Division began investigating the disappearance of nearly $2 million from church banking investments, as well as very questionable/misappropriation of church funds and not paying church employees their earned wages. They currently meet at First Lutheran Church (www.firsting.org) in Inglewood, California. In her ministerial work, she is known as the Rev. Dr. Della Reese Lett.
On July 6, 2011, Reese celebrated her 80th Birthday at the Catalina Jazz Club in Los Angeles, California. In 2015, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to her.
On August 29, 2016, nearly two months after she celebrated her 85th birthday, Reese was said to be in failing health, as she uses a wheelchair, following two serious brain surgeries. She also admitted her suffering from diabetes, "My life is at stake," she said. "I don’t have type 2 diabetes — type 2 diabetes has me."
Reese is not wheelchair bound, and tries to avoid using one often because it could make her condition worse. Prior to attending the 2014 ceremony to honor her former co-star and long-time friend, Roma Downey, who received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, years after her mentor, Della Reese also admitted (after collapsing on the set of Touched by an Angel) diet contributed to her diabetes, after years of eating her old, nightly snacks of fried chicken, potato chips, ice cream, candy bars and cola, and was very frustrated because she didn't do anything to prevent her health problems. "With diet, exercise and medication, I took control of my diabetes," she stated. "I lost 20 pounds and lowered my blood sugar from between 275 and 300 to between 67 and 110." After her last appearance on Signed, Sealed, Delivered, she had retired from acting.Awards
1994: Hollywood Walk of Fame: 7060 Hollywood Boulevard – Television
1996: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
1997: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
1998: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
1999: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
2000: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
2001: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
2002: Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
1960: Grammy Award – Don't You Know
1961: Grammy Award – Della (Album)
1991: Grammy Award – Della Reese and Brilliance
1997: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
1997: Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
1998: Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
1998: Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Made for TV Series – Touched by an Angel
1998: Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series – Touched by an Angel
1999: Grammy Award – My Soul Feels Better Right Now
2000: Annie Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement for Voice Acting By a Female Performer in an Animated Feature – Dinosaur