Della Reese, ‘Touched By an Angel’ star and R&B singer, dies at 86

Della Reese, who segued from pop and jazz singing stardom in the ‘50s and ‘60s to a long career as a popular TV actress on “Touched By an Angel” and other shows, died Sunday night at her home in California. She was 86.

“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,” Reese’s family said in a statement. “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.”

Reared in gospel, Reese became a seductive, big-voiced secular music star with her No. 1 R&B and No. 2 pop hit “Don’t You Know” in 1959. The 45, her first single on RCA Records, was a ballad drawn from an aria from Puccini’s opera “La Boheme.”

She ranged through a series of releases that showed off her mastery of standards, jazz and contemporary pop through the early ‘70s, and over the course of her career she received four Grammy Award nominations.

See photos of Della Reese:

23 PHOTOS
Della Reese through the years
See Gallery
Della Reese through the years
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Della REESE; Posed studio portrait of Della Reese, full length (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Della REESE; Posed studio portrait of Della Reese (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)
Publicity still portrait of American actress and singer Della Reese, New York, New York, 1958. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)
Singer and Actress Della Reese (Photo by ?? John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE - Airdate: February 22, 1964. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) DELLA REESE
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON -- Pictured: Singer Della Reese on November 16th, 1970 -- (Photo by: Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
GETTING TOGETHER - 'Singing the Blues' - Aired on October 16, 1971. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) DELLA REESE;BOBBY SHERMAN
GETTING TOGETHER - 'Singing the Blues' - Aired on October 16, 1971. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) DELLA REESE
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON -- Aired 12/03/1981 -- Pictured: Musical guest Della Reese performs on December 3, 1981 -- Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank
LOVE BOAT - 'Love Boat Follies: The Musical/My Ex Mom/Show Must Go On/The Pest/My Aunt the Worrier' which aired on Febuary 27, 1982. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) DELLA REESE
THE A-TEAM -- 'Lease with an Option to Die' Episode 4 -- Pictured: Della Reese as Mrs. Baracus (Photo by Ron Tom/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MARCH 18: Della Reese (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Della Reese at the Grammy Foundation Salute to Musical Masters at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles, 2/18/01. Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images.
Della Reese during 25th Annual NAACP Image Awards at Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
ENCINO, CA - SEPTEMBER 20: (US TABS AND HOLLYWOOD REPORTER OUT) Actress / singer Della Reese performs onstage at B.B. King's 80th birthday celebration at the home of Sam and Mary Haskell on September 20, 2005 in Encino, California. Funds raised from the event will go towards the forthcoming B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi. (Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)
Della Reese during CBS Summer 2002 Press Tour & Party at Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, California, United States. (Photo by Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 25: Actress Reverend Della Reese arrives at the Ford Freedom's Sister Luncheon at Beverly Hills Hotel on February 25, 2010 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/FilmMagic)
OJAI, CA - AUGUST 29: ***EXCLUSIVE ACCESS*** Singer Della Reese performs at Diane Ladd's benefit fundraiser at a private residence on August 29, 2009 in Ojai, California. (Photo by John M. Heller/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 19: Actress Della Reese attends 'The Bible Experience' Opening Night Gala at The Bible Experience on March 19, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - SEPTEMBER 28: Della Reese attends Operation Smile's 30th Anniversary Smile Gala - Arrivals at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on September 28, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MAY 08: Singer Della Reese attends the Anti-Defamation League Entertainment Industry Dinner honoring Roma Downey and Mark Burnett at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on May 8, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by John M. Heller/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 11: Actress Della Reese attends the ceremony honoring Roma Downey with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on August 11, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

By 1969 she had launched her TV show “Della” – the first talker hosted by an African-American woman – and had begun a move into an acting career that would take her to even greater national prominence.

Speaking of her TV and film work with the Associated Press’ Bob Thomas in 1997, she said, “I had good training for it. I was always a stylist, a lyricist. I became acquainted with the words in order to convince you I must believe in what I’m singing. That’s what acting is: believing. It was just like one thing flowing into another.”

After a number of guest appearances, Reese broke into TV full-time with a starring role in the hit 1975-78 Jack Albertson-Freddie Prinze comedy series “Chico and the Man.” Roles on “It Takes Two,” “Crazy Like a Fox,” “Charlie & Co.” and (opposite her good friend Redd Foxx) “The Royal Family.”

She also took starring roles in the features “Harlem Nights” and “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” and appeared in 20 made-for-TV pictures.

Her greatest popularity came as co-star of the inspirational CBS show “Touched By An Angel.” Though the show was axed during its debut 1994-95 season, a letter-writing campaign convinced execs to bring the series back, and Reese prevailed as the heavenly samaritan Tess for a total of nine seasons, winning seven consecutive NAACP Image Awards as best lead actress in a drama and collecting two Emmy nominations and a 1998 Golden Globe nod.

Though she continued to make TV guest appearances and took the occasional film role in the new millennium, she returned to her religious roots as the founding pastor of her own Los Angeles-based church, Understanding Principles for Better Living (or “Up”). In later years, she was frequently billed as Reverend Doctor Della Reese Lett.

She was born Delloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931, in Detroit. She began singing in church as a six-year-old; the glamorous black vocalist-actress Lena Horne was one of the film stars she admired as a girl. By her teens, she was working as a singer in gospel luminary Mahalia Jackson’s unit.

More celebrities who have died in 2017:

60 PHOTOS
Celebrities who died in 2017
See Gallery
Celebrities who died in 2017

Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner died in his home at the Playboy Mansion of natural causes on September 27. He was 91 years old.

(Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy)

Singer Chester Bennington of Linkin Park committed suicide in July, he was 41 years old.

(Photo by Scott Dudelson/WireImage)

David Cassidy died on November 21 after having been placed in a medically-induced coma. The '70s heartthrob and "Partridge Family" star was 67.

(Photo by Bobby Bank/Getty Images)

Comedian Jerry Lewis died on August 20. He was 91 years old.

(Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)

Tom Petty, the famed and beloved rocker behind hits like “American Girl” and “Free Fallin,” died in October following a cardiac arrest. He was 66.

(Photo by Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

Actor Adam West attends the Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders Press Room at New York Comic-Con - Day 1 at Jacob Javits Center on October 6, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

Legendary actress Mary Tyler Moore passed away at the age of 80.

(REUTERS)

John Heard, known for his role as the father in the Home Alone films, died on July 21. Some reports say he was 71-years-old, however, others have his age listed as 72.

(Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)

Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor peacefully passed away at his home in Kentucky in July after a long battle with Lou Gehrig's disease. He was 73.


(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

"Touched By an Angel" star Della Reese died at the age of 86 peacefully at her home on November 19.

(Photo by Maury Phillips/WireImage)

Roger Smith, who starred in the series "77 Sunset Strip" and was married to actress Ann-Margret, died Sunday in Sherman Oaks. He was 84.

(Getty)

Gregg Allman, best known for performing in The Allman Brothers Band, passed away at 69.

(Reuters)

Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell died unexpectedly at 52 after he was found in a Detroit hotel room.

(Reuters)

Erin Moran, who is known for her role in TV sitcom "Happy Days," died at the age of 56 after a secret battle with cancer.

(Getty)

Comedian Don Rickles died at the age of 90 from kidney failure.

(Reuters)

Comedian Charlie Murphy died at 57 from complications stemming from a battle with leukemia.

(Getty)

Roger Moore, a former James Bond star, died after a short battle with cancer at 89.

(Reuters)

Jonathan Demme, the director known for his work on thriller "Silence of the Lambs," died at 73 from esophageal cancer and complications from heart disease.

(Getty)

Roger Ailes, who was at FOX News for two decades before being ousted last year for alleged sexual harassment, died at 77 after suffering a fall at his home.

(Reuters)

Bill Paxton died unexpectedly at age 61 on February 25. 

( REUTERS/Fred Prouser)

AC/DC guitarist and co-founded Malcolm Young died in November at the age of 64 after a three-year battle with dementia.

(Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns)

Soul singer Cuba Gooding Sr., who is also Cuba Gooding Jr.'s father, died at 72.

(Getty)

Neil Fingleton, "Britain's tallest man" and "Games of Thrones" star died at 36 from heart failure.

 (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

"Battlestar Galactica" star Richard Hatch died at 71. 

(Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) 

John Hurt, star of "The Elephant Man," died at 77. 

REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett 

Butch Trucks, founding member of The Allman Brothers Band, died at 69.

(Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Actor Miguel Ferrer died from throat cancer at 61.

(Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

Dick Gautier, known for is role in the Broadway musical 'Bye Bye Birdie' died at 85.

(Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)

Frank Deford, giant of sports journalism, died at 78.

(Photo by Marc Bryan-Brown/WireImage)

Rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry, who is known for hits like ''Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Roll Over Beethoven," died at 90 years old.

(Reuters)

Television personality Christopher 'Big Black' Boykin, known for his MTV show "Rob & Big," died at the age of 45.

(Getty)

Dina Merrill, the actress known for movies like "Butterfield 8" and "Operation Petticoat," died at 93.

(Getty)

Frank Pellegrino Sr. (R) died at age 72 following a battle with lung cancer. He was known for his role on "The Sopranos." 

(Getty)

Former pop singer Tommy Page was found dead at 46 in New York City.

(Getty)

"Doll Squad" star Francine York passed away at 80 after a battle with cancer.

(Getty)

Joni Sledge, the "We Are Family" singer, was found dead in her Phoenix home. She was 60.

(Getty)

Jazz legend Al Jarreau died at the age of 76.

(Getty)

Actor Robert Michael Morris died at age 77. His death was confirmed by friend Lisa Kudrow.

(Getty)

Monty Hall, one of the most popular game show hosts in American television died in September at age 96.

(Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

Anne Jeffreys, star of ‘General Hospital’ and Broadway’s ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ died in September at 94.

(Photo by Rodrigo Vaz/FilmMagic)

Barry Dennen, member of the original cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” died in September at age 79.

(Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)

Famed soul singer Charles Bradley died in September at the age of 68.

(Photo by David A. Smith/Getty Images)

Harry Dean Stanton, the actor known for his roles in "Twin Peaks," "Big Love," "Pretty in Pink" and "Repo Man" died of natural causes in Los Angeles. He was 91.

(Photo by Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images)

Frank Vincent, who had a key role on "The Sopranos" and appeared in a number of Martin Scorsese films, died at age 78.

(Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)

Nelsan Ellis, who starred in the HBO series True Blood, died on July 8 from alcohol withdrawal after years of struggling with substance abuse. He was 39 years old.

(Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)

Blake Heron, the child actor who starred in 1996's "Shiloh," died at age 35.

(Photo by Utopia Pictures/Getty Images)

Comedian Shelley Berman, who was famous as a "sit-down" comedian and later as Larry David's dad on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," died at the age of 92.

(Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

Dick Gregory, the trailblazing comic and civil rights activist whose unique brand of comedy combined cutting wit and contemporary headlines, died in August at the age of 84.

(Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)

Martin Landau, the all-purpose actor known for his Oscar-winning performance in Ed Wood, died in July. He was 89.

(REUTERS/Danny Moloshok)

Gary DeCarlo, the lead singer of Steam, died in June at the age of 75.

(Photo by Bobby Bank/Getty Images)

Michael Nyqvist, who starred in the Swedish film version of "The Girl With Dragon Tattoo," died after a battle with lung cancer. He was 56.

(HENRIK MONTGOMERY/AFP/Getty Images)

Prodigy, who made up one half of Mobb Deep, died in June. He was 42.

(Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

Comedian Ralphie May was found dead in his Las Vegas home in early October. He died of cardiac arrest at the age of 45.

(Photo by Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images for Pollstar)

"Benson" actor Robert Guillaume died on October 24 at the age of 89 following a long battle with breast cancer.

(Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)

Legendary New Orleans musician Fats Domino died of natural causes at the age of 89 at the end of October.

(Photo by James Crump/WireImage)

Former "Veronica Mars" actor Brad Bufanda died of a suspected suicide at the age of 34 at the beginning of November.

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Rising rapper Lil Peep was found dead in his tour bus on November 15 in Arizona. He was 21. Officials are still determining his cause of death, which is suspected to be an accidental overdose.

(Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Wendy Pepper, who was a fan-favorite on "Project Runway," died peacefully surrounded by family at the age of 53 in mid-November. No cause of death was given.

(Photo by Jonathan Grassi /Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Jim Nabors, widely adored for playing Gomer Pyle on "The Andy Griffith Show," passed away in November 2017 at age 87.

(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

After graduating from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School (later attended by Diana Ross), she briefly attended Wayne State University, but soon moved into music professionally, taking Della Reese as her pro handle.

Like homegrown R&B superstar Jackie Wilson, Reese received prominent exposure during an engagement at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar; her style reflected the influence of such jazz precursors as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.

Signed to Jubilee Records, the indie New York label that launched the doo-wop acts the Orioles and the Cadillacs, Reese scored her first chart success with the 1957 ballad “And That Reminds Me,” which reached No. 12 on the U.S. pop chart.

That song secured her a contract with RCA. She secured the biggest hit of her career out of the box with “Don’t You Know,” and followed it up in 1960 with the similarly styled “Not One Minute More” (No. 16 pop, No. 13 R&B). Her top-charting LP was “Della,” which climbed to No. 35 in ’60.

Though other major chart hits eluded her, Reese recorded prolifically – frequently in a jazz style, and frequently in a live club setting – for RCA and ABC through the ‘60s. She was a popular attraction on the Las Vegas Strip during this era.

Reese got her first acting break from casting director Reuben Cannon, who offered her a guest shot on the youth-oriented cop show “The Mod Squad” in 1968. Roles on such skeins as “Police Woman,” “The Rookies” and “McCloud” followed.

The first series to show off her tart style to full advantage was “Chico and the Man,” in which she portrayed star Albertson’s landlady. The hit NBC show reached an abrupt end with co-star Prinze’s suicide in January 1977.

She subsequently was a familiar player on such successful series as “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “The Love Boat,” “The A-Team” (on which she guested as star Mr. T’s mother), “Night Court,” “MacGyver,” “Designing Women” and “L.A. Law.”

However, it was “Touched By An Angel” that cemented her TV stardom. With co-star Roma Downey, Reese, portraying the acerbic, Cadillac-driving supervising angel Tess, ministered to the spiritual needs of her earthbound “search and rescue cases.” Reese also performed the show’s theme song, “Walk With You.”

After receiving its first-season cancellation reprieve, the unique family-oriented show maintained a devoted audience of fans for nearly a decade, and spawned the spinoff “Promised Land.” Following its final 2002-03 season, it enjoyed syndicated runs on Ion, Hallmark Channel, Up and Me-TV.

By the time “Touched By An Angel” moved into reruns, Reese, an ordained minister since the early ‘80s, was increasingly focused on her religious work, with TV and film appearances largely restricted to guest shots. She announced her retirement from performing in 2014.

Throughout her long career, Reese proved indomitable in the face of serious health crises. In 1979, she suffered a brain aneurysm during a taping of “The Tonight Show,” and weathered two brain surgeries. She collapsed on the set of “Touched By An Angel” in 2002, and later announced she suffered from type 2 diabetes.

Reese’s four marriages included a brief, annulled union with Mercer Ellington, son of jazz great Duke Ellington. She is survived by her husband Franklin Lett, a film producer and concert promoter.

Subscribe to Variety Newsletters and Email Alerts!

Read Full Story

Sign up for Entertainment Insider by AOL to get the hottest pop culture news delivered straight to your inbox!

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.