86-year-old Detroit native, Cass Tech grad found fame as Tess, the wise angel in the long-running CBS drama
Los Angeles — In 2010, Della Reese was in Detroit to tape an episode of ABC’s former drama “Detroit 1-8-7.” During the visit, she marveled at the changes she saw in her hometown.
“Where I used to live is a freeway,” Reese told The Detroit News, her first visit to the city in some time. “The school that I used to go to, I didn’t see anymore. Most of the people I grew up with have either moved to another city, or they’ve made their transition. But I was impressed to see the new things that are happening and that the city seems to be getting back up out of the slump.”
Reese, an actress and gospel-influenced singer who in middle age found her greatest fame as Tess, the wise angel in the long-running televisions drama “Touched by an Angel,” died Monday at age 86.
Reese’s co-star on the series, Roma Downey, said in a statement that the actress died peacefully Sunday evening in her home in the Los Angeles area. No further details were included.
Before “Touched by an Angel” debuted in 1994, Reese was mainly known as a singer, although she had costarred on “Chico and the Man,” “Charlie and Company” and “The Royal Family” and hosted her own talk show, “Della.”
“Touched by an Angel” was a gamble for CBS from the start. The story of an apprentice angel (Roma Downey) and her supervisor (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.
The first season brought mediocre ratings, but slowly the show’s audience grew until it became one of television’s highest-rated dramas. It lasted until 2003.
“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,’
” Roma Downey wrote in a statement. “I know heaven has a brand new angel this day.”
She had been ordained by the Chicago-based Universal Foundation for Better Living, and when co-star Downey got married, Reese performed the ceremony.
The actress also appeared in movies. Her most memorable role was the sassy madam Vera in Eddie Murphy’s 1989 movie “Harlem Nights,” starring Murphy, the late comedians Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx.
Reese was born in Delloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931, in Detroit. She grew up on Vernor, between Rivard and Hastings, on Detroit’s east side, near the area formerly known as Black Bottom. She began her singing career at 6 at her mother’s church, Olivet Baptist, where she joined the junior gospel choir. Soon she was singing at other churches, at civic events and on the radio. She joined the gospel group the Meditation Singers.
Reese was a graduate of Cass Technical High School and attended Wayne State University.
When Mahalia Jackson, known as The Queen of Gospel Music, came to Detroit, she needed a singer to replace a member of her troupe. She turned to Reese, who was only 13.
Jackson was so impressed by the teenager’s voice that she enlisted her for a summer tour, and Reese went on to tour with her for five summers. In later years, she would remark that she would never forget what she learned from the legendary gospel singer, including “how to communicate with people through song.”
When she made the transition to pop music in the early ’50s, it was a daring move for a gospel singer. Detroit was full of glamorous showbars such as the Flame and the Frolic, although Reese admitted her first gig at the Flame had nothing to do with her singing talent.
“I won a contest,” she told The News in 2010. “Nobody had heard me sing a note.”
Stroh’s Brewery and the Michigan Chronicle newspaper sponsored the contest, which required would-be singers to clip out coupons from the paper. Whoever collected the most clippings would win a week’s engagement at the Flame. Reese recalled collecting “four bushel baskets of coupons” and won the job, which led to an extended engagement, opening for the greats, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday.
Reese would return to Michigan often to perform at the famed southwestern Michigan resort Idlewild, where she and Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and B.B. King visited to vacation or perform.
In 2001, Reese celebrated her hometown’s 300th birthday by headlining the first of a three-day celebration dubbed the Sounds of Detroit on Hart Plaza. That same year, Reese was inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame.
Reese is survived by her husband, Franklin Lett, and three children.
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