November 19, 2017 – Della Reese, was born Delloreese Patricia Early on July 6, 1931 in the Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit Michigan. At six years old, Reese began singing in church. From this experience, she became an avid gospel singer. On weekends in the 1940s, she and her mother would go to the movies independently to watch the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Lena Horne portray glamorous lives on screen. Afterwards, Reese would act out the scenes from the films. In 1944, she began her career directing the young people’s choir, after she had nurtured acting plus her obvious musical talent. She was often chosen, on radio, as a regular singer.Delloreese entered Detroit’s popular Cass Technical High School (where she attended the same year as Edna Rae Gillooly, later known as Ellen Burstyn). She also continued with her touring with Jackson. At the age of 13, she was hired to sing with Mahalia Jackson’s gospel group. With higher grades, she was the first in her family to graduate from high school in 1947, at only 15.
After her graduation, she formed her own gospel group, the Meditation Singers. However, due in part to the death of her mother and her father’s serious illness, Reese had to interrupt her schooling at Wayne State University to help support her family. Faithful to the memory of her mother, Delloreese moved out of her father’s house when she disapproved of him taking up with a new girlfriend. She then took on odd jobs, such as truck driver, dental receptionist, and elevator operator, after 1949. Performing in clubs, Early soon decided to shorten her name from “Delloreese Early” to “Della Reese” as her career took off as a nightclub, jazz, gospel, and pop singer.
Her big break in music came when she won a contest, which gave her a week to sing at Detroit’s well-known Flame Show Bar. Reese remained there for eight weeks. Although her roots were in gospel music, she now was being exposed to and influenced by such jazz artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. In 1953, she signed a recording contract with Jubilee Records, for which she recorded six albums. Later that year, she also joined the Hawkins Orchestra. Her first recordings for Jubilee were songs such as “In the Still of the Night” (originally published in 1937), “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “Time After Time” (1947). The songs were later included on the album And That Reminds Me (1959).
In 1957, Reese released a single called “And That Reminds Me”. After years of performing, she gained chart success with this song. It became a Top Twenty pop hit and a million-seller record. That year, Reese was voted by Billboard, Cashbox and various other magazines, as “The Most Promising Singer”. In 1959, Reese moved to RCA Records and released her first RCA single, called “Don’t You Know?,” which was adapted from Giacomo Puccini’s music for La bohème, specifically, the aria “Quando m’en vo'” (Musetta’s Waltz). It became her biggest hit to date, reaching the number 2 spot on the pop charts and topping the R&B charts (then called the “Hot R&B Sides”) that year. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA. Eventually, the song came to be widely considered the signature song of her early career. She then released a successful follow-up single called “Not One Minute More”. She remained on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “And Now”. In 1960 she released “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)” which was drawn from her Grammy-nominated album Della. The album rose in the pop album charts to number 35.
Between 1957 and 1970, Della recorded over 25 albums. In November 1960, Reese appeared in advertisements in Ebony magazine for the newly launched AMI Continental jukebox. Reese recorded regularly throughout the 1960s, releasing singles and several albums. Two of the most significant were The Classic Della (1962) and Waltz with Me, Della (1963), which broadened her fan base internationally. She recorded several jazz-focused albums, including Della Reese Live (1966), On Strings of Blue (1967) and One of a Kind (1978). She also performed in Las Vegas for nine years and toured across the country. Reese continued to record albums in the following decades, receiving two more Grammy nominations in the gospel category for the album Della Reese and Brilliance (1991) and for the live recorded album, My Soul Feels Better Right Now (1999). Motown singer Martha Reeves cites Reese as a major influence and says she named her group The Vandellas after Van Dyke Street in Detroit and Della Reese.
Even though she kept recording, after 1969 she focused more on acting and turned into a well known actress with many credits to her name. In the Sixties, she hosted her own talk show, called ‘Della’. As an actress, Della starred in several films, including 1989’s ‘Harlem Nights’, ‘A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (in 1996) and ‘Expecting Mary’ (in 2010).
She also performed in the television series ‘Touched by an Angel’ (between 1994 and 2003).
Singer, actress, minister, T.V. hostess, director, producer and ordained minister, Della Reese died on November 19, 2017 in Encino, California, U.S.A.. She was 86.