By Stacy M. Brown
Della Reese, the legendary actress and star of the classic movie “Harlem Nights” and the long-running CBS drama “Touched by an Angel,” died on Sunday, November 19. She was 86.
From Reese’s memorable appearances in movies like “A Thin Line between Love and Hate” to television shows like “Chico and the Man,” “Sanford & Son” and “227,” fans and friends celebrated her storied career on social media.
“Saddened to hear of the passing of Della Reese,” the Rev. Al Sharpton wrote on Twitter. “I’ve enjoyed her artistry as long as I can remember.”
In a nod to her starring role in the CBS television series, “Touched by an Angel,” Reese’s co-star Roma Downey wrote: “I know heaven has a brand new angel this day. Della Reese will be forever in our hearts. Rest in Peace, sweet angel, we love you.”
According to Variety, “At its height, “Touched by an Angel” reached more than 21 million total viewers a week and remained popular through syndication and DVD releases.”
Chicago jazz composer Ramsey Lewis said, “She really had stage presence, some magic about her.”
BET, CBS and Essence magazine also tweeted out their love for Reese.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with her family,” Essence magazine posted on Twitter.
Born Deloreese Patricia Early in Michigan on July 6, 1931, Reese started her career recording and performing on television variety shows in the 1950s.
From 1969 to 1970, she hosted a TV talk show called, “Della,” and she went on to appear in many other series over the decades including “Sanford and Son” with her good friend, Redd Foxx.
Reese’s TV show, “Della,” made her the first African American woman to host a talk show.
She earned a gospel music Grammy nomination for best female soloist in 1987 and, in the 1990s, Reese landed the lead role in the hit TV drama, “Touched by an Angel.”
However, she never forgot where it all began for her: singing in the church at the age of six, according to Biography.com.
Reese’s talents eventually landed her an opportunity to work with gospel great Mahalia Jackson, when Reese was just 13.
Raised on gospel music, Reese transformed into a seductive secular music superstar with her No. 1 R&B and No. 2 pop hit “Don’t You Know” in 1959.
It was her first single on RCA Records, a ballad drawn from an aria from Puccini’s opera, “La Boehme,” NBC News reported.
Ultimately, Reese revealed a mastery of standards, jazz and contemporary pop through the early 1970s, and over the course of her career she received four Grammy Award nominations.
“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.
In 1997, Reese told the Associated Press that she achieved many things that others may have thought to be impossible. She explained her ability to succeed in song and in film.
“I had good training for it. I was always a stylist, a lyricist,” she said. “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,” Reese said.
Following her memorable performance in “Harlem Nights” in 1989, Reese appeared in a number of TV shows and made-for-TV movies until she landed the role of “Tess” in the television series “Touched by an Angel” in 1994.
CBS cancelled the show after the first season, but fans swarmed the network with letters and calls, forcing them to renew the series.
Reese would go on to portray “Tess” on “Touched by an Angel” for nine seasons, earning seven NAACP Image Awards as best lead actress in a drama.
She also received two Emmys and a Golden Globe nomination.
Reese is survived by her husband, Franklin Lett, a film producer and concert promoter.