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*Della Reese was born on this date in 1931. She was a Black actress, singer, television personality, and ordained minister.
She was born Delloreese Patricia Early in the Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan. Her mother Nellie Mitchelle was a Native American (Cherokee) cook. Her father a Black steelworker Richard Thaddeus Early died in 1959. At six years old, Reese began singing in church. From this experience, she became an avid gospel singer. On weekends in the 1940s, she and her mother would go to the movies independently to watch the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Lena Horne portray glamorous lives on screen.
Afterward, Reese would act out the scenes from the films. In 1944, she began her career directing the young people's choir, after she had nurtured acting plus her obvious musical talent. She was often chosen, on radio, as a regular singer. At the age of thirteen, she was hired to sing with Mahalia Jackson's gospel group. Reese attended Detroit's Cass Technical High School and continued with her touring with Jackson. Her first recordings for Jubilee were songs such as "In the Still of the Night" (1937), "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm", and "Time After Time" (1947). Although the EP did not enter the charts, it sold 500,000 copies, and the songs were later included on the 1959 album And That Reminds Me. With higher grades, she was the first in her family to graduate from high school in 1947, at 15.
Afterward, she formed her own gospel group, the Meditation Singers. However, due in part to the death of her mother in 1949 and her father's serious illness, Reese had to interrupt college at Wayne State University to help support her family. Faithful to the memory of her mother, Reese also moved out of her father's house when she disapproved of him taking up with a new girlfriend. She then took on odd jobs, such as truck driver, dental receptionist, and even elevator operator, after 1949. She started her professional career in the 1950s as a gospel, pop, and jazz singer. In 1953, she signed a recording contract with Jubilee Records, for which she recorded six albums. Later that year, she also joined the Hawkins Orchestra.
In 1957, Reese released a single called "And That Reminds Me". After years of performing, she gained chart success with this song. It became a Top Twenty Pop hit and a million-seller record. That year, Billboard, Cashbox, and various other magazines voted Reese, as "The Most Promising Singer". In 1959, she moved to RCA Records and released her first RCA single, called "Don't You Know?", which was adapted from Puccini's music for La Bohème, specifically, the aria Musetta's Waltz. It became her biggest hit to date, reaching the #2 spot on the Pop charts, and topping the R&B charts, which were then called the "Black Singles Charts", that year. Eventually, the song came to be widely considered the signature song of her early career.
Reese received a Grammy nomination for her 1960 album, Della, and then released a successful follow-up single called "Not One Minute More" (#16), and she remained on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with the songs "And Now" (#69), "Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)" (#56) and "The Most Beautiful Words" (#67). Reese recorded regularly throughout the 1960s, releasing singles and several albums. Two of the most significant were The Classic Della (1962) and Waltz with Me, Della (1963), which broadened her fan base internationally. She recorded several jazz-focused albums, including Della Reese Live (1966), On Strings of Blue (1967), and One of a Kind (1978). She also performed in Las Vegas for nine years and toured across the country. Reese continued to record albums in the following decades, receiving two more Grammy nominations in the gospel category for the album Della Reese and Brilliance (1991) and for the live-recorded album, My Soul Feels Better Right Now (1999).
In 1969, she began a transition into acting work, which would eventually lead to her greatest fame. Her first attempt at television stardom was a 1969 eponymously titled variety series, which was canceled after one season. Reese has had a wide variety of television guest-starring roles, beginning with an episode of The Mod Squad among many others. In 1970, Reese became the first Black woman to guest host The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. She appeared in several TV movies and miniseries, was a regular on Chico and the Man. In 1979, after taping a guest spot for The Tonight Show, she suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm but made a full recovery after two operations. In 1983, she married Franklin Thomas Lett, Jr., a concert producer, and writer. In 1991, she starred opposite Redd Foxx in his final sitcom, The Royal Family.
After coping with the death of Redd Foxx, one of her best friends in 1991, she was reluctant to play an older female lead in the inspirational television drama 'Touched by an Angel', but went ahead and auditioned for the role of "Tess". She was widely seen as a key component of the show's success. Reese also sang the show's theme song, "Walk With You" and was featured prominently on the soundtrack album produced in conjunction with the show. In 2002, her adoptive daughter, Deloreese Daniels Owens died after complications stemming from the pituitary disease. That same year Reese announced on Larry King Live that she had been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. In 2005, Oprah Winfrey honored Reese at her Legends Ball ceremony, along with 25 other Black women.
She was ordained as a minister in 2010, after serving as the senior minister and founder of the Understanding Principles for Better Living Church in Inglewood, California. Della Reese died on November 19, 2017, at her Los Angeles, California, home at the age of 86. No cause was given, although she had suffered from Type 2-diabetes