Della Reese

Singer, Actor, & Minister

“My idea of forgiveness is letting go of resentment that does not serve your better interest, ridding yourself of negative thoughts. All they do is make you miserable. Believe me, you can fret and fume all you want, but whoever it was that wronged you is not suffering from your anguish whatsoever.”

A singer, actor, and minister who left an indelible imprint in each field, her varied music career was highlighted by “Don't You Know?” (1959).

Renowned as both a television star and a top-flight interpreter of jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, and straight-ahead pop music, Della Reese's many talents ensured a long, varied, and legendary show biz career. In addition to being nominated for both an Emmy and a Grammy and receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Reese was also an ordained minister in the Universal Foundation for Better Living, an association of churches she helped found in the early ‘80s.

Della Reese

Born Deloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931, the young Reese began singing in the Baptist church choir in her hometown of Detroit at age six. In 1945, having developed quite rapidly, she caught the ear of legendary gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, who invited Reese to join her touring choir; Reese did so for the next five summers. Upon entering Wayne State University to study psychology, Reese formed a women's gospel group, the Meditation Singers, but her college career was cut short by the death of her mother and her father's serious illness.

Reese worked odd jobs to help support the rest of her family; she also continued to perform with the Meditation Singers and various other gospel groups. Encouraged by her pastor, Reese began singing in nightclubs in hopes of getting a singing career off the ground; recently married to a factory worker named Vermont Adolphus Bon Taliaferro, her name was too long to fit on marquees, and she eventually arrived at her performing alias by splitting up her first name.

After impressing a New York agent, who promptly signed her, Reese moved to New York and joined the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra in 1953. A year later, she had a recording contract with Jubilee, for whom she scored hits like “And That Reminds Me,” a 1957 million-seller.

Switching to RCA Victor, Reese landed her biggest hit in 1959 with “Don't You Know?,” a song adapted from Puccini's La Bohèthis cemented her career, leading not only to plentiful appearances on variety shows, but successful nightclub tours of the country and eventually nine years of performances in Las Vegas, as well as recording contracts with a variety of labels over the next few decades.

Building on her previous variety show experience, Reese made a small bit of television history in 1969 when she became the first woman to guest-host The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Later that year, she became the first black woman to host her own variety show, the syndicated Della, which ran until 1970.

Della Reese

Following its cancellation, Reese returned to her nightclub tours, often putting in guest appearances on television shows like The Mod Squad, Sanford and Son, and Chico and the Man; after three prior failed marriages, Reese also found a lasting relationship with producer Franklin Lett, whom she married in 1978.

On October 3, 1980, while taping a song for The Tonight Show, Reese suffered a brain aneurysm that nearly proved fatal; however, thanks to a successful operation, she was able to make a full recovery. She kept up her singing career and appeared on television shows like Designing Women, L.A. Law, and Picket Fences, as well as the Eddie Murphy films Harlem Nights and The Distinguished Gentleman.

Reese also starred in the Redd Foxx sitcom The Royal Family from 1991-1992, and garnered what was undoubtedly her highest level of recognition in the inspirational drama series Touched by an Angel, a quite popular program that ran for nine years, between 1994 and 2003, on the CBS network.

After Touched by an Angel finished its run, Reese continued to act intermittently on television through to 2014. She died at her home in Encino, California in November 2017 at the age of 86.

Quick Facts

Birth Date:
July 6, 1931

Death Date:
November 19, 2017

  • She was taken to the church regularly by her mother and she started singing there. This built the foundation for her career as an avid gospel singer in future.
  • Soon she entered and won a talent show and was offered a chance to sing at Detroit's well-known Flame Show Bar for a week; however, she remained there for eight long weeks. During that time, she came in touch with several popular jazz musicians like Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, and despite being a gospel singer she grew interested in jazz.
  • By the end of the 1960s, Della Reese had already become a popular personality in the American entertainment industry. She shifted her focus to acting and started hosting her own show Della. It ran for 197 episodes between June 9, 1969 and March 13, 1970, before being canceled.
  • One of Della Reeseā€™s very first singles, the title song of the album “And That Reminds Me” became one of her biggest hits. It reached the number 9 spot on the weekly Billboard chart and number 16 on the Cashbox in 1957. The song became her biggest commercial hit so far, and the album received a Gold Certificate from the RIAA.
  • She was nominated three times for the Grammy Awards and also earned nominations for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series and Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series for her work in Touched by an Angel.
  • Della Reese
  • Della Reese
  • Della Reese


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Last Updated

February 2021

Original Published Date

February 2021

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