In the hazy social milieu of 1982, it is striking that only a few black entertainers are allowed into the inner sanctum of America's taste shapers, allowed to recommend peas and butter, allowed to substitute for its late-night, stand-up barometer, Johnny Carson, or allowed to play dumb on game shows and guess how many states start with "New."
The club is small and its veterans who have broken this sight barrier can be counted on one hand: Sammy Davis, Bill Cosby, Pearl Bailey, sometimes Richard Pryor, and Della Reese. To Reese, however, her presence in this group isn't cause for a sociological thesis.
"I don't think about it at all. I don't see any need to think about it. It doesn't mean anything to me. I refuse to believe I was there because I was a black woman. My talent wouldn't step back for that," says Reese, singer, host, panelist, product spokesman and lecturer. In her hotel suite, near Charlie's, the Georgetown club where she is appearing through Sunday, she sits in a wing chair, like a cloud of white cotton, her red slippers peeking out from a caftan dress.
"Surely all these things make my life more interesting. You can't really rank talent. Carmen McRae only sings, but when she sings, that's enough. Maya Angelou, on the other hand, will recite, emote, sing and clap her hands in rhythm, and I love each one," says Reese, her powerful voice as thick and smooth as the Barley's Irish Cream she has just laced into her coffee. "I am easily bored. I need things to keep me busy; if you don't grow, you die."
Reese, who can count the same five decades of life as a McRae or an Angelou, however, has had an opportunity to display more of her dimensions, and her implied acceptability to the American mainstream makes her special. From the days when she was a young whisper behind gospel great Mahalia Jackson, through her $85-a-week break in her home town of Detroit's famous "Flame Showbar" to her pitch-hitting on "The Tonight Show," Reese seems to have avoided the pitfalls and scars that marked many black entertainers for second-class stardom. She has become equally well recognized as a personality and a singer.
Her view of this status comes straight from a businessman's ledger. "People don't hire you if you don't sell. It's really that simple; this is a business, this is not fun and games," says Reese. "No, I am a talented woman and they needed a talented woman. I evidently fill that bill better than anyone else could fill that bill at that point in time, or they would have hired someone else. It's just that simple to me. There's nobody else in the world who can do what I do. Nobody. There is no other creature. If you want Della Reese, you have to come here because I am the only one who is doing her. This is what they come to me for. Nobody else is doing me. I do me really good."
And, she adds, with a slow, dramatic verbal boot to the rear, if she was ever filling the black slot, which is obviously a painful part of the careers of stars from Cab Calloway to Pearl Bailey to Cicely Tyson, Reese knew the game. "If I have been given token jobs--the money was wonderful. If they had politics, tokenism, whatever the name, I hope they got what they wanted because I got what I wanted. What I asked for was just like the national debt . . . but I never gave it 15 minutes' worth of thought," says Reese.
Her career has been marked by a spiritual reinforcement every step of the way. "My mother was a miracle worker," she says, speaking of the woman who was the wife of a $65-a-week steel worker and the mother to seven children. "We had absolutely nothing and she turned it into everything. She could cook this chair," says Reese, pointing to her seat. "And you would just smack your lips and say I don't want to eat anything else but chair as long as I live . . . I have no other way to explain at all that I came from the slums, where the options were that I could be a whore, a murderer or thief, and to be where I am now, with no training, no nothing, none of the things I should have to bring me here."
When Reese was 6 she joined the church choir. At age 13 she joined the Mahalia Jackson group and went on the road. Reese never thought about any other career but entertainment. "I never decided to sing, like I never decided to comb my hair," says Reese, who saw her first concert, by Duke Ellington, on her 21st birthday.
In the late 1950s Reese's voice reached out with a vigorous generation of singers--Nancy Wilson, Dakota Station, Etta James--who took the blues, jazz and gospel roots and gave new audiences, especially the infant television one, enduring love songs. Reese contributed her own golden chestnuts, "And That Reminds Me" and "Don't You Know." Success with Ed Sullivan, Perry Como and Jackie Gleason eventually led to her becoming the first black woman to host her own television show, "Della," in 1969 and 1970. That, in turn, led to her "Tonight Show" appearances.
Her career has also included acting, with parts on "Sanford and Son" and "Police Story," as well as a regular berth on "Chico and the Man."
In 1979, an appearance on "The Tonight Show" almost ended tragically. In the middle of the taping, she collapsed from a ruptured aneurysm near her brain. "I found in the valley of death some wonderfulness and I brought it back with me," she says. For the last 15 years she has lived in a comfortable Bel Air ranch house overlooking Stone Canyon Reservoir. She has a daughter, 22, who works on "The Richard Simmons Show," and an adopted white son who is a Los Angeles psychiatrist.
While Reese is busy with a variety of projects, many of her fellow black entertainers are waiting for better times. Black talent has to shoulder the blame for why "there are not as many jobs for black actors," she says. "The reason is nobody writes any parts for black actors. All of the playwrights in the world are not white people. No one black writers is writing anything good enough so when you take it to NBC, they can look at it and see they can make an eight-year series," she says.
Does that hold true for a project like Angelou's teleplay "Sisters," whose stars include Rosalind Cash, Diahann Carroll and Robert Hooks, and which has been shelved for several years? "It is a good product, it does have a good writer, but it's about three black women. It's not about three women, and I love Maya, this is not to put her down. But we are going to have to have plays written, movies written about the world as it is."
Reese's own diversity has no stop sign. She just finished working on the "Leave It to the Women" television show, tours the country cooking for Campell's soups, works with the religious broadcasts of Oral Roberts and "The 700 Club," studies metaphysics and has just finished a book of poetry and prose. "If it comes up and captures my imagination, I do it," she says. Do these experiences give her any new insight into the uniqueness or specialness of Reese? "I learn something new about myself every day."