ILOSM, we have some very sad news. One of our favorite actresses and singers Della Reese, has passed away. She was a vocal powerhouse who’s style reflected the influence of such jazz precursors as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.
At age 86, she leaves behind children James, Franklin, and Dominique, as well as husband Franklin Lett. She was predeceased by daughter Deloreese.
“On behalf of her husband, Franklin Lett, and all her friends and family, I share with you the news that our beloved Della Reese has passed away peacefully at her California home last evening surrounded by love. 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,” her costar Roma Downey confirmed to 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. 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.”
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.
Her Legendary History
By 1969 she had launched her TV show “Della” – the first talk show hosted by an African-American woman – and had begun a move into an acting career that would take her to even greater national prominence.
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.
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.