Della Reese, the actress and gospel-influenced hit-making chanteuse who in middle age found her greatest fame as Tess, the wise angel in the long-running television drama “Touched by an Angel,” died Nov. 19 at her home in the Los Angeles area. She was 86.
Ms. Reese’s co-star on the series, Roma Downey, confirmed the death but did not provide further details. She was long beset by health problems, once collapsing during a taping of Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” after an aneurysm ruptured in her brain.
Before “Touched by an Angel” debuted in 1994, Ms. Reese had a long career headlining at major nightclubs, including the Copacabana in New York and the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood, and a string of major recording successes. In the mid-1950s and early 1960s, her versions of “In the Still of the Night,” “Don’t You Know” and “And That Reminds Me,” sold millions of copies.
She also was a frequent late-night TV show guest and appeared on TV series including “Chico and the Man,” “Charlie and Company” and “The Royal Family,” in addition to occasional film roles in movies including “Harlem Nights” (1989) as a madam.
“Touched by an Angel” was a gamble for CBS from the start. The story of an apprentice angel (Downey) and her supervisor (Ms. Reese) being sent to Earth to solve people’s problems appeared to have little chance in a TV world dominated by sitcoms and police dramas.
The first season brought mediocre ratings, but slowly the show’s audience grew until it became one of television’s highest rated dramas. It lasted until 2003.
Delloreese Patricia Early was born in Detroit on July 6, 1931. She took early to people-watching and to song, combining her childhood interests in precocious ways.
“I was a troubadour,” she later told the Chicago Tribune, “and I’d sing whatever I saw, whatever I knew. ‘Mr. Jones is a mean man, and he hits his wife and she cries.’ Or ‘Mrs. Brown was at the store, and she was buying pork chops, and she was kissing the butcher.’ Finally my mother had to nail up the window.”
She joined the junior gospel choir at the Olivet Baptist Church in Detroit and rapidly became the star soloist. Soon she was singing at other churches, at civic events and on the radio.
When Mahalia Jackson, known as The Queen of Gospel Music, came to Detroit, she needed a singer to replace a member of her troupe. She turned to Ms. Reese, who was only 13.
Jackson was so impressed by the teenager’s voice that she enlisted her for a summer tour, and Ms. Reese went on to tour with her for five summers. She also briefly attended Wayne State University in Detroit before her mother’s death in 1949 caused her to drop out to support her family.
“There was no slow transition from adolescence to adulthood for me,” she once told the New York Sunday News. “When my mother died, I immediately became a woman. . . . I had to get out and start making my own way of life.”
In addition to holding down menial jobs, Ms. Reese formed her own group, the Meditation Singers, but considered singing a hobby more than a steady or realistic career choice. But while singing in 1951 at a bowling alley-nightclub, she won a newspaper-sponsored singing contest that led to a week-long engagement (later extended) at an after-hours club.
A theatrical agent helped her land a job in New York singing for nine months with the Erskine Hawkins’ jazz orchestra. In 1954, she signed her first recording contract, helping launch her appearances on TV variety shows and in movies such as “Let’s Rock” (1958).
Ms. Reese had been ordained by the Chicago-based Universal Foundation for Better Living.
Her marriages to Vermont Taliaferro and Leroy Gray ended in divorce. A marriage to Duke Ellington’s son Mercer Ellington, who served as her musical director, was annulled. In 1983, she wed concert producer Franklin Lett, with whom she had three children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
“My mom scrubbed floors. My dad poured steel. I had no formal training, just a gift from God. I’ve been blessed,” she told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2011.