Della Reese, a performer and pastor best known for her starring role on the CBS spiritual drama Touched by an Angel, has died at 86.
“Her signature television role came late in life,” NPR’s Eric Deggans reported. “Reese already had been famous for decades as a gospel-influenced R&B performer, TV guest star and talk show fixture.”
Her husband Franklin Lett released a statement through her Touched by an Angel costar Roma Downey, saying that Reese “has passed away peacefully at her California home surrounded by love.”
Downey added, “I know heaven has a brand new angel this day.”
Reese, who was born Delloreese Patricia Early in Detroit, started singing in church when she was six. She told NPR in 2003 that she was recruited by gospel legend Mahalia Jackson to tour with her at the age of 12.
“My mother took Mahalia aside and looked into her eyes and said, `I’ve got a good child here. I wouldn’t let her go off with everybody, but I trust you. I know you’re a woman of God and I’m expecting you to bring me back a better child than I’m sending away with you,'” Reese told the Tavis Smiley Show.
From there, her songs climbed pop charts, such as “Don’t You Know,” which is adapted from an aria from the opera La Boheme. As Eric reports:
“Her dignified image led to mainstream stardom. She was on The Ed Sullivan Show 18 times in one year. She also became the first black woman to host her own syndicated variety series and the first black woman to guest host Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
“It was on the set of that show in 1979 that she suffered a brain aneurysm; a near-death experience that inspired her to become an ordained minister.”
Her own show, Della, was on air for one season in 1969-70 with nearly 200 episodes, The New York Times reported, with guests including “George Burns, Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard, Steve Allen, Tony Bennett, Ethel Waters and Gypsy Rose Lee.”
In Touched by an Angel, Reese plays Tess, a sarcastic angel boss who is a maternal figure to Downey’s apprentice guardian angel. “No one played the down to earth, worldly mother figure like Della Reese,” Eric adds.
The show was a hit, and ran for nine years “telling stories of God’s impact in everyday life,” Eric says. “People need something to help them with their lives. In the show, we didn’t tell you what to do, we said, ‘did you ever think about it like this?'” Reese said, as Eric reports.
Reese also sang the show’s theme song, “Walk with You.”
As an ordained minister, Reese founded a church called the Understanding Principles for Better Living Church out of her living room. The church’s website recounts that from an original eight members, the church soon outgrew her living room. As the Times reported, “she delivered Sunday services there for many years.”