Born Deloreese Patricia Early, July 6, 1931, in Detroit, MI; daughter of Richard (a factory worker) and Nellie (a domestic) Early; married Vermont Adolphus Bon Taliaferro (a factory worker; divorced); married Leroy Basil Gray (an accountant; divorced); married Mercer Ellington, 1961 (annulled 1961); married Franklin Thomas Lett, Jr. (a concert and television producer and businessman), 1978; children: Deloreese Daniels ("Dumpsey"; adopted 1961), James Barger (adopted 1965); stepchildren: Franklin Lett III, Dominique Lett. Education: Attended Wayne State University, 1949-50. Addresses: Agent--Lett Entertainment, 1910 Bel Air Rd., Los Angeles, CA 90077.
Gospel, pop, and blues singer, actress, and talk show host Della Reese admits that her first love is singing. She is well known for her clear, powerful voice, distinctive diction, and emotional delivery. Yet television and movie performances have rounded out her varied career in the entertainment business and proven her to be a talented comedic and dramatic actress. The youngest in a family of six children, she grew up in Detroit, Michigan, where the Baptist church and gospel singing greatly influenced her career. At age six, Deloreese Patricia Early was singing in the church's junior choir.
For the next seven years Deloreese continued her gospel singing in the church. By the time she was 13, the singer had developed such vocal power and talent that she caught the attention of the legendary Mahalia Jackson. Known as the "Queen of Gospel Music," Jackson recruited Deloreese for her Mahalia Jackson Troupe gospel singers. "This opportunity to sing with the world's foremost gospel singer was a thrilling experience," Reese noted in a 1992 press release. "I will never forget the wonderful association which lasted for five consecutive summers, and the lasting things I learned from her ... how to communicate with people through song." The teenaged Reese toured with the gospel group from 1945 through 1949.
Although Reese studied psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit, singing remained very important to her. She formed a women's gospel group called the Meditation Singers during her first year at Wayne State. By the end of that year, Reese's mother had died and her father had become ill. Reese ended her college education to help support her family, working variously as a receptionist and switchboard operator, barber, taxicab driver, and even as a truck driver.
During this time Reese continued to perform with the Meditation Singers. She also had the occasional opportunity to perform with the Clara Ward Singers, the Roberta Martin Singers, and Beatrice Brown's Inspirational Singers. Reese did not consider singing as a career, however. In a December 1957 interview with Don Nelsen for the New York Sunday News, she said, "I was interested in singing, but I thouht of it as something to do when you didn't have anything else to do."
Since gospel singers made very little money, Reese thought a career in business would be the best way for her to earn a living. Nevertheless, she toyed with the idea of making music her profession. She knew that making a career as a singer would mean performing popular music in nightclubs; this caused her some distress, since the extravagance and excesses she associated with club life clashed with her religious beliefs. Yet when the Reverend E. A. Rundless of Detroit's New Liberty Baptist Church encouraged Reese to pursue a singing career, she put her reservations aside. A short time after Reese became a hostess-singer at a local bowling alley/nightclub, she won a contest in which newspaper readers voted for their favorite local singer. The prize was a week-long engagement at Detroit's famous Flame Showbar.
At the time, Reese was married to Detroit factory worker Vermont Adolphus Bon Taliaferro. Because she could not fit her name on the nightclub marquee, she decided to shorten it to Pat Ferro. By the time her engagement at the Flame Showbar ended 18 weeks later, she had changed her name again. Dividing her first name into Della Reese, she created her professional name, one that would become synonymous with blues, jazz, and gospel music.
During her run at the Flame Showbar, Reese caught the attention of New York agent Lee Magid, who agreed to represent her. In 1953 Reese moved to New York to sing with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. In the nine months she was with the orchestra, she further developed her vocal talents and style of delivery, alternating between blues, jump tunes, and Latin music.
In 1954 Reese signed a contract with Jubilee Records. Her first releases included I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, Time After Time, and In the Still of the Night, which sold 500,000 copies. Reese's first big hit, And That Reminds Me, sold over a million copies in 1957. She was soon voted "The Most Promising Girl Singer" of the year by Billboard, Cashbox, and Variety magazines, along with the Disc Jockeys of America and the Jukebox Operators Association.
With her recording success in full swing, Reese was in demand for national television appearances. She entertained viewers of the Perry Como, Jackie Gleason, Joey Bishop, and Ed Sullivan shows during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Appearances on the Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Pat Boone, and Hollywood Palace shows followed, as did radio performances. She toured the nightclub circuit and even landed a singing role in the 1958 Columbia film Let's Rock.
In 1959 Della Reese recorded her biggest hit, "Don't You Know?," for RCA Victor. The success of this single, which was adapted from Italian composer Giacomo Puccini's opera La Boheme, led to nine years of performing in Las Vegas and more than three decades of recording successes for a variety of labels, including ABC-Paramount and AVCO-Embassy.
Reese became the first woman to stand in for Johnny Carson when she guest-hosted The Tonight Show. In 1969 se made history again, becoming the first black woman to host her own television program, a variety show titled Della, which was nationally syndicated by RKO in 1969 and 1970.
When Reese's television contract was not renewed, she resumed her nightclub performing. During her long career, she has entertained in many of the country's top clubs, including such famous night spots as the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood, the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Los Angeles's Greek Theatre, and the Apollo Theatre and Copacabana, both in New York City. Reese has also toured internationally, performing at venues in Europe, Japan, and South America.
On October 3, 1980, at the age of 48, Reese was taping a segment for The Tonight Show when something went terribly wrong. "I hit a horrendous note--the flattest I've ever sung.... My left knee buckled and I fell to the floor," she related in People magazine. An aneurysm, or weakened spot on an artery, had broken in her brain. On the brink of death for several days, Reese faced the reality that she might never make a full recovery. But her faith in God and the talents of a Canadian neurosurgeon pulled her through.
Reese's strong religious convictions--evident in the inclusion of spirituals in virtually all of her nightclub performances--prompted her to pursue ordination in the Universal Foundation for Better Living, an organization of 22 churches worldwide. Reese considers this step "a glorious development" in her spiritual life and maintains that without religion, her success in the fields of music and acting would not have been possible.
Since her television acting debut in 1968 as a disco owner on The Mod Squad, Reese has continued appearing on the small screen, singing on many shows, including The Love Boat, The Great American Gospel Show, and the Grand Ole Opry. Her acting talent is evident in the widely varied guest-starring roles she has landed over the years on such series as Sanford and Son, Police Story, Chico and the Man, The "A" Team, MacGyver, Night Court, Crazy Like a Fox, Young Riders, Designing Women, L.A. Law, and Picket Fences, in which she played a saucy but ailing blues legend who requires radical, experimental surgery. She even picked up an Emmy nomination for her appearance in Nightmare in Badham County. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Reese lamented the dearth of good "meaty parts for women, especially black women over 60."
Reese credits her success as an actress to her experience as a live singer and nightclub performer. "If you can make people believe your songs of blues and sadness, when you don't feel that way ... well, that takes acting ability I always knew I had," she was quoted as saying in a Lett Entertainment press release. Reese has also appeared on the big screen in Harlem Nights, which features a memorable fight scene with Eddie Murphy, and The Distinguished Gentleman, another Eddie Murphy production. And during the 1991-92 television season, she costarred in the CBS-TV hit The Royal Family. Although the death in 1991 of Redd Foxx--Reese's television husband in the series--cast doubt on he fate of the show, the plot was reworked and the situation comedy continued for the rest of the season.
Aside from her fame as an actress, Della Reese continues her first love--singing. Between tapings of television shows she performs in concert halls, in nightclubs, and at music festivals. In 1992 she starred in a new nightclub show created by her husband, Franklin Lett. Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues opened at the Cinegrill in Hollywood to rave reviews. Don Heckman commented in the Los Angeles Times, "Reese genuinely appeared to be enjoying every minute. Reaching out, pulling her audience into the music, asking them to share both the pleasure and the passion of her experience, she was an irresistible spokeswoman for the joys and tears of the blues."
by Sandy J. Stiefer and Jeanne M. Lesinski
Della Reese's Career
Sang with the Mahalia Jackson Troupe, summers, 1945-49; formed gospel group the Meditation Singers, 1949; worked as a receptionist, taxi driver, barber, and truck driver; sang with Clara Ward Singers, Roberta Martin Singers, Beatrice Brown's Inspirational Singers, and the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra; signed with Jubilee Records, 1954; signed with RCA, 1959; performed in nightclubs across the U.S.; made over 300 television guest appearances on popular talk and entertainment shows; guest host of The Tonight Show; host of her own variety show, Della, 1969-70; guest star in numerous television shows, including The Mod Squad, Chico and the Man, Designing Women, L.A. Law, and Picket Fences; costar of television situation comedy The Royal Family, CBS, 1991-92; actress in films, including Let's Rock, The Distinguished Gentleman, and Harlem Nights; toured in revue Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues, beginning in 1992. Ordained minister, Universal Foundation for Better Living.
Della Reese's Awards
Named Most Promising Girl Singer of 1957; Emmy nomination for best supporting actress, 1977; Grammy nomination for best female soloist- -gospel, 1987; approved for star on Hollywood Walk of Fame; numerous gold records.
- Selective Works
- I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, Jubilee, c. 1955.
- Time After Time, Jubilee, c. 1955.
- In the Still of the Night, Jubilee, c. 1956.
- One More Time, ABC-Paramount, 1956.
- And That Reminds Me, Jubilee, 1957.
- A Date with Della--at Mr. Kelly's, Jubilee, 1958.
- Della by Starlight, RCA Victor, 1960.
- Della, Della, Cha Cha Cha, RCA Victor, 1960.
- I Like It Like Dat, ABC-Paramount, c. 1960.
- Special Delivery, Della Reese, RCA Victor, 1961.
- Della on Stage, RCA Victor, 1962.
- The Classic Della, RCA Victor, 1962.
- Waltz With Me, Della, RCA Victor, 1963.
- Three Great Girls, RCA Victor, 1963.
- Della Reese at Basin Street East, RCA Victor, 1964.
- C'mon and Hear, ABC-Paramount, 1965, reissued, Pickwick, 1978.
- Moody, Della Reese, RCA Victor, 1965.
- On Strings of Blue, ABC-Paramount, 1967.
- The Best of Della Reese, RCA Victor, 1972.
- Let Me in Your Life, Lee Magid, 1972.
- Della Reese, ABC-Paramount, 1976.
- One of a Kind, Jazz a la Carte, 1978.
- Hush, Somebody's Callin' My Name, CUT, 1979.
- Sure Like Lovin' You, Della Reese (Applause), 1983.
- Della Reese and Brilliance, AIR Co., 1987.
- Black Is Beautiful, AVCO-Embassy.
- What Do You Know About Love?, Jubilee.
- Amen, Jubilee.
- The Story of the Blues, Jubilee.
March 2006: Reese announced the introduction of her signature fashion line, Reese Fashions, which is set to launch on the Home Shopping Network. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, March 21, 2006.
- Black Elegance, July 1992.
- Ebony, May 1989.
- Jet, December 9, 1991; July 5, 1993.
- Los Angeles Times, July 16, 1992.
- Melody Maker, August 29, 1987.
- New Yok Sunday News, December 29, 1957.
- People, May 19, 1980.
- Variety, November 18, 1981; May 7, 1986.
- Village Voice, March 16, 1982.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Lett Entertainment press release, 1992, and an interview featured on Entertainment Tonight, ABC-TV, April 29, 1993.