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Della Reese, the music legend and star of Touched by an Angel, has died, a rep for Reese’s Touched by an Angel co-star Roma Downey confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. She was 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,” the statement reads. “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. She was a mother to me and I had the privilege of working with her side by side for so many years on Touched by an Angel. I know heaven has a brand new angel this day. Della Reese will be forever in our hearts. Rest In Peace, sweet angel. We love you.”
People was first to report Reese’s death.
“People need something to help them with their lives,” Reese said in a 2008 interview with the Archive of American Television. “In Touched by an Angel, we didn’t tell you what to do. If you were distraught and at a place where you felt there was nothing else to do, we would make a suggestion: ‘Did you ever think about it like this? It doesn’t have to be that way. You can change your mind and change your life.’ It gave people at home, in the privacy of their homes, a chance to know that they, too, could change their minds and change their life.”
In a statement, CBS, which aired Touched by an Angel, said: “We’re deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Della Reese. She was a multi-talented, award-winning performer who shined brightly on soundstages and in concert halls. For nine years, we were privileged to have Della as part of the CBS family when she delivered encouragement and optimism to millions of viewers as Tess on Touched By An Angel. We will forever cherish her warm embraces and generosity of spirit. She will be greatly missed. Another angel has gotten her wings.”
Touched by an Angel aired on CBS for nine seasons (1994–2003). It was a big family hit on Sunday nights. It co-starred Downey as the angel Monica, with Reese playing her tough supervisor, Tess. Reese was nominated for Emmy Awards in 1997 and 1998.
Delloreese Patricia Early was born on July 6, 1931, in Detroit.
Her father worked in a mill pouring steel, and her mother was a cook and housekeeper.
She had five sisters (one was 20 when she was born) and a brother.
“My mother says that when I was born and they slapped me, I didn’t cough, I began to sing, and I never stopped,” Reese said. “When I was 6, I sang continuously until people were nervous.”
One day, one of Mahalia Jackson’s backing singers, who was pregnant, fainted in church and was prohibited by a doctor to accompany the gospel legend on a tour on the South. Reese, just 13 years old at the time, then took her place.
“I thought when I got away from my mother I would be able to get down and break it loose, but Mahalia was stricter than my mother was,” she said.
Reese attended Wayne State for two years, moved to New York to pursue a singing career and worked with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.
Her first tour was with Nat King Cole, whom she adored. She appeared 17 times on The Ed Sullivan Show, the first time in 1957.
In 1969, Reese began a career transition into acting; her first onscreen appearance as an actor came on a 1968 episode of The Mod Squad. She followed with stints on such shows as The Bold Ones: The New Doctors, Police Woman, The Rookies, McCloud and Chico and the Man. Reese played Della Rodgers on that latter NBC show, which ran from 1974-1978. She also starred opposite Redd Foxx on the CBS sitcom The Royal Family.
Reese appeared in Eddie Murphy’s 1989 film Harlem Nights.
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James Gordon Meek