Renowned as both a television star and a top-flight interpreter of jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, and straight-ahead pop music, Della Reese's many talents have ensured a long, varied, and legendary show biz career. In addition to being nominated for both an Emmy and a Grammy and receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Reese is also an ordained minister in the Universal Foundation for Better Living, an association of churches she helped found in the early '80s.
Born Deloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931, the young Reese began singing in the Baptist church choir in her hometown of Detroit at age six. In 1945, having developed quite rapidly, she caught the ear of legendary gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, who invited Reese to join her touring choir; Reese did so for the next five summers. Upon entering Wayne State University to study psychology, Reese formed a women's gospel group, the Meditation Singers, but her college career was cut short by the death of her mother and her father's serious illness. Reese worked odd jobs to help support the rest of her family; she also continued to perform with the Meditation Singers and various other gospel groups. Encouraged by her pastor, Reese began singing in night clubs in hopes of getting a singing career off the ground; recently married to a factory worker named Vermont Adolphus Bon Taliaferro, her name was too long to fit on marquees, and she eventually arrived at her performing alias by splitting up her first name. After impressing a New York agent, who promptly signed her, Reese moved to New York and joined the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra in 1953. A year later, she had a recording contract with Jubilee, for whom she scored hits like "And That Reminds Me," a 1957 million-seller.
Switching to RCA Victor, Reese landed her biggest hit in 1959 with "Don't You Know?," a song adapted from Puccini's La Bohème; this cemented her career, leading not only to plentiful appearances on variety shows, but successful nightclub tours of the country and eventually nine years of performances in Las Vegas, as well as recording contracts with a variety of labels over the next few decades.
Building on her previous variety show experience, Reese made a small bit of television history in 1969 when she became the first woman to guest-host The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Later that year, she became the first black woman to host her own variety show, the syndicated Della, which ran until 1970. Following its cancellation, Reese returned to her night club tours, often putting in guest appearances on television shows like The Mod Squad, Sanford and Son, and Chico and the Man; after three prior failed marriages, Reese also found a lasting relationship with producer Franklin Lett, whom she married in 1978.
On October 3, 1980, while taping a song for The Tonight Show, Reese suffered a brain aneurysm which nearly proved fatal; however, thanks to a successful operation, she was able to make a full recovery. She kept up her singing career and appeared on television shows like Designing Women, L.A. Law, and Picket Fences, as well as the Eddie Murphy films Harlem Nights and The Distinguished Gentleman. Most recently, Reese starred in the Redd Foxx sitcom The Royal Family from 1991-1992, and in the inspirational drama series Touched by an Angel. ~ Steve Huey