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."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Singer and actress Della Reese has died at the age of 86. She was a jazz and pop singer, but as NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans explains, she was probably best known as angelic supervisor Tess on the show "Touched By An Angel."
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: No one played the down-to-earth, worldly-wise mother figure like Della Reese, and her signature role on "Touched By an Angel" was the ultimate maternal mentor, guiding Roma Downey's newly promoted guardian angel.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL")
DELLA REESE: (As Tess) Now, don't start going crazy on me. This is serious business. Case work is tricky.
ROMA DOWNEY: (As Monica) I know. I know.
REESE: (As Tess) Now, just 'cause you got more power, don't mean you got all the power.
DOWNEY: (As Monica) I know.
DEGGANS: Reese came of showbiz age in the 1960s and '70s when TV had enough variety shows, game shows, talk shows and situation comedies that you could build a career as an always welcome guest. She turned up on Flip Wilson's variety show was a confident career woman.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FLIP WILSON SHOW")
REESE: (As character) Now, watch yourself, Mr. Sylvester. I'm a lawyer, not a sex object.
DEGGANS: And she dropped by "The A-team" to tweak Mr. T, playing mother to his character, B.A. Baracus.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE A-TEAM")
MR. T: (As B.A. Baracus) Oh, Ma. Nobody call me Scooter anymore.
REESE: (As Mrs. Baracus) Well, you'll always be Scooter to me. I don't care how much jewelry you wear. A boy shouldn't wear more jewelry than his mother, don't you agree?
DEGGANS: But her performing roots reach back to 1930s Detroit where she was born Delloreese Patricia Early. She'd already been singing in church for years when gospel star Mahalia Jackson took her on tour at age 13. More than a decade later, her powerful take on classically inspired tunes hit the pop charts in the late 1950s with an adaptation of an aria from the opera "La Boheme."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T YOU KNOW?")
REESE: (Singing) Don't you know?
DEGGANS: That style, refined and classy, was her way of redefining how the audience saw black female singers. as Reese told "The Urban Roundtable."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REESE: It was understood that if you were a black woman, what you did was you shook your fanny and you sang and you dressed as naked as possible. And that was the way you showed yourself.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Right.
REESE: So I was determined that I was never going to dress like that. And I wasn't going to move. I was going to stand. And I was going to sing. And my voice was going to reach you. And that was that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S MAGIC")
REESE: (Singing) You sigh. The song begins. You speak. I hear violins. It's magic.
DEGGANS: 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 aneurism, a near-death experience that inspired her to become an ordained minister.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REESE: We always think about Jesus on the cross. We always think about him in the tomb, but he did a lot of work before he had to go through the cross, through the tomb to the resurrection.
DEGGANS: By the early '90s, Reese had soured on tv series work until "Touched By An Angel," which lasted nine years telling stories of God's impact in everyday life.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REESE: 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?
DEGGANS: Della Reese became something of a guardian angel in real life, too, serving as pastor and guiding light for more than two decades at a church she founded in Los Angeles.
Eric Deggans, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK WITH YOU")
REESE: (Singing) When you walk down the road... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.