Della Reese

Active - 1980s - 2013  |   Born - Jul 6, 1931 in Detroit, Michigan, United States  |   Died - Nov 19, 2017 in Encino, CA  |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Children's/Family, Music [nf]

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Della Reese is one of the few performers to move easily between the religious community and the mainstream entertainment industry. Born in Detroit, MI, Reese started singing in gospel choirs at a very young age. In 1945, she joined a touring choir with legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. As a student at Wayne State University, Reese former her own singing group called the Meditation Singers. After a regular gig at Detroit's Flame Showbar, she went on to sing with Erskine Hawkins & His Orchestra. During the '50s and '60s, she recorded pop vocal albums for Jubilee and RCA Victor, leading to several pop singles on the Billboard charts. She was also nominated for a Grammy award and is remembered as one of the first gospel singers to have a popular stage show in Las Vegas.

Her television career started in 1969 as the guest host of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She then made television history as the first black woman with her own prime-time variety show, Della. After singing on the nightclub circuit and making television guest appearances as herself, she joined the cast of Chico and the Man from 1976 to 1978. Despite her battle with illness in the early '80s, she continued acting steadily throughout the next few decades. Her other TV series appearances include Sanford and Son, It Takes Two, Charlie & Co., and The Royal Family. On the big screen, she played madam Vera in Eddie Murphy's Harlem Nights and Martin Lawrence's mother in A Thin Line Between Love and Hate. Her biggest television achievement is the CBS drama Touched By an Angel, which ran from 1994-2003. For her role of Tess, the wise guiding angel to Monica (Roma Downey), Reese won several Image Awards and Emmy nominations. Her other television work includes leading roles on the TV tearjerkers Miracle in the Woods, The Moving of Sylvia Myles, and Anya's Bell. She would appear in a number of projects in the years to come, like Expecting Mary and Me Again. An ordained minister, Reese helps to run the Los Angeles church association Understanding Foundation for Better Living.

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  • While still in her early teens, she was discovered by Mahalia Jackson and was invited to join the legendary gospel singer's touring choir for the summer.
  • In college, she started a women's gospel group called the Meditation Singers; she cut back on performing with the group after leaving school to help support her family following her mother's death.
  • Signed with Jubilee Records after relocating to New York in 1953 and scored a hit with the 1957 single "And That Reminds Me," which led to regular appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
  • Became the first black woman to host her own talk show when Della premiered in 1969; it aired for one season.
  • During a 1979 performance on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, she suffered a brain aneurysm and was thought to be near death.
  • An ordained minister, she started her own church, called Understanding Principles for Better Living Church.
  • Became close friends with Roma Downey, her costar on the CBS drama series Touched By An Angel, and officiated at Downey's 2007 wedding ceremony to TV reality producer Mark Burnett.