“I could not have made it this far had there not been angels along the way.” —Della Reese
On November 19, 2017, legendary actress, singer and advocate Della Reese passed.
To many of us, Della Reese was the feisty, loving, warm-hearted angel, Tess, on the CBS hit television show “Touched by an Angel.” She entered our homes every week, bringing with her hope, love and a lavish dose of fun-loving humor.
Whether calming us with her sweet, smooth singing voice or commanding our attention with her quick-witted dialogue, Della Reese has been loved and cherished by audiences for decades. She was an award-winning artist, a pioneer, a prime-time icon and beloved friend to those who knew her.
Born July 6, 1931, in Detroit, Reese quickly discovered that she was destined for the stage—she began singing in church at age 6 and by 13, gospel legend Mahalia Jackson took notice of her incredible skill, inviting Reese to join her on tour. She toured with Jackson from 1945-1949, leading the way into her multi-genre musical career that included gospel, jazz and R&B.
Always a pioneer, achieving “firsts” was a common theme throughout her life.
In 1957, Reese released a single called “And That Reminds Me,” which became a Top Twenty Pop hit and million-seller record holder. This was just a start to the many recognitions, nominations and awards she would go on to receive over the span of her career. Later, in 1987, Reese received a Grammy nomination for Best Female Soloist in Gospel music. On July 12, 1994, she received her Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Having spent her early childhood going to movies with her mother to watch legendary actresses such as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis dazzle on the big screen, Reese seamlessly transitioned from the stage to the screen. When a producer approached her about hosting her own live show, she accepted, becoming the first black woman to host her own variety show. “Della!” aired weekly, featuring two to three guests and taking full advantage of Reese’s multifaceted range of talents. “Della!” is remembered as the show that paved the way for Oprah Winfrey, who later honored Reese at her Legends Ball ceremony in 2005.
The ending of “Della!” marked the beginning of Reese’s TV career. In 1970, she continued on to become the first female guest host of the ”Tonight” show. Always a pioneer, achieving “firsts” was a common theme throughout her life—Reese was the first in her family to graduate high school in 1947 at the age of 15, at the age of 18 she formed the Meditation Singers and became the first gospel singer to perform in the casinos of Las Vegas and later, as mentioned, the first black woman to host her own variety show.
Despite the long list of beloved TV characters that she brought to life, it was her role as Tess in “Touched by an Angel” that truly brought Reese into the homes and lives of viewers across the nation, making her a prime-time TV icon. At its height, “Touched by an Angel” reached more than 21 million viewers a week and remains popular to this day through syndication and DVD releases.
It was here that Reese met co-star and LightWorkers President, Roma Downey.
Together, Reese and Downey charmed, inspired and comforted viewers through their roles as on-duty angels sent to help those in need. Reese—who played the feisty and no-nonsense angel of the two—assigned angels to “cases” where they intervened in the lives of humans who needed help and a reminder of God’s love. Acting as a mentor and mother figure to Downey’s on-screen character, Monica, Reese also developed a deep bond and motherly relationship with Downey off the screen.
“She was an artist, a pioneer, a prime-time icon and beloved friend to those who knew her.”
“Roma Downey is an angel in my life. It is no accident that our paths have crossed,” Reese explained lovingly regarding her relationship with Downey. Roma Downey has said of being in the arms of Della Reese: “There is no safer place in the world than in her giant, loving embrace. Those who knew Della know she did not shake hands, she hugged.”
Watch this special moment with Della Reese and Roma Downey on the CBS hit TV show “Touched by an Angel.”
Throughout her life, Della Reese’s many talents were celebrated: a seven-time winner of the Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series, six-time Grammy nominated artist, two time Emmy awarded artist, and the list goes on. And while she will undoubtedly be remembered by the masses for these achievements, for many years, she also pastored a church—those who had the privilege to know her will remember her most for her undying faith and the way that she nurtured and inspired.
And most of all, for the way that she loved.
“She touched the lives of so many—with her straightforward, sassy, warm and loving approach she shared the message of God’s love with millions,” Downey shares. “She has been a mother, a pastor, a mentor, a dear friend to me and an angel costar. She is my mommy and the godmother to my own daughter. I love her truly, completely and deeply. She was a blessing to us all.”
Della Reese. Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images.
Barry Gordy with Della Reese. Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images.
Della Reese. Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty Images.
Della Reese and husband, Franklin Lett. Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc./Getty Images.
Della Reese. Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty images.
Touched by an Angel stars, Della Reese and Roma Downey. Photo by CBS Photo Archive.
Della Reese. Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images.