Della Reese, once saved by London's Dr. Charles Drake, has died

Carla Harmon
November 21, 2017

She later became the first black woman to guest host The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1970. Reese was nominated for four Grammy Awards throughout her career.

According to a family statement released on Monday, Reese died peacefully Sunday evening at her home in California. No cause of death or additional details have been provided at this time. She was born in Detroit in 1931 and named Delloreese Patricia Early.

"She was the first person that I had heard speak aloud what I believed inside", recalled Reese, a former Baptist who began singing in church at age 6. She also hosted a short-lived variety series, "Della". 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. In the mid-1950s and early 1960s, her versions of "In the Still of the Night", "Don't You Know" and "And That Reminds Me", sold millions of copies. And by 13-years-old, she was asked to perform with Mahalia Jackson's gospel group, who she later toured with.

Reese went on to sign a record deal with indie NY label, Jubilee Records and in 1957 landed at No. 12 on the pop chart with the ballad "And That Reminds Me".

The statement was posted on the family's behalf by Reese's co-star Roma Downey on her Instagram page.

Her stint as the landlady on the 1970s comedy "Chico and the Man" led to other roles that showed off Reese's sass, including as Vera, the tough-as-nails madam in a brothel in Eddie Murphy's 1989 film "Harlem Nights", which also starred her good friend, comedian Redd Foxx. And her religious upbringing and gospel singing had a strong influence on several roles she played, including an after school special called The Gift of Amazing Grace. Della Reese will be forever in our hearts. Her music career took off from there. She was a multi-talented, award-winning performer who shined brightly on soundstages and in concert halls. She would end up becoming ordained - in her ministerial work, she was known as Rev. Dr. Della Reese Lett - and told The Seattle Times in 1996 that "my brain exploding was one of the best things that happened to me". 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. The story of an apprentice angel (Downey) and her supervisor (Ms. Reese) being sent to Earth to solve people's problems appeared to have little chance in a TV world dominated by sitcoms and police dramas. She will be greatly missed. We will forever cherish her warm embraces and generosity of spirit. Della is survived by her husband Franklin Lett and her children James, Franklin and Dominique.

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