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Della Reese, of famed Touched by an Angel, has died

LYNN ELBER | 12/6/2017, 2:43 a.m.
Della Reese, the actress and gospel-influenced singer who in middle age found her greatest fame as Tess, the wise angel ...
Detroit native Della Reese sings during the Detroit 300 festival July 20, 2001, at Hart Plaza in Detroit. The festival celebrates the city of Detroit's 300 birthday. Paul Warner

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Della Reese, the actress and gospel-influenced singer who in middle age found her greatest fame as Tess, the wise angel in the long-running television drama Touched by an Angel, has died at age 86.

Reese’s co-star on the series, Roma Downey, said in a statement that the actress died peacefully Sunday evening in her home in the Los Angeles area. No further details were included.

Before Touched by an Angel debuted in 1994, Reese was mainly known as a singer, although she had costarred on Chico and the Man, Charlie and Company and The Royal Family.

Reese was a TV groundbreaker, according to the Television Academy: She was the first African American woman to host her own talk show, Della, which aired 1969-70, and in 1970 became the first Black woman to be tapped as a guest host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.

It was Touched by an Angel that endeared her to viewers, although the drama wasn’t an instant hit. The story of an apprentice angel (Roma Downey) and her supervisor (Reese) being sent to Earth to solve people’s problems appeared to have little chance in a TV world dominated by sitcoms and police dramas.

The first season brought mediocre ratings, but slowly the CBS show’s audience grew until it became one of television’s highest-rated dramas. It lasted until 2003.

“Through her life and work she touched and inspired the lives of millions of people. She was a mother to me and I had the privilege of working with her side by side for so many years on Touched by an Angel,” Downey wrote in a statement. “I know heaven has a brand new angel this day.”

Reese had been ordained by the Universal Foundation for Better Living and performed the ceremony when co-star Downey married.

Reese’s singing career began in church, when she joined the junior gospel choir at the Olivet Baptist Church in her hometown of Detroit. Soon she was singing at other churches, at civic events and on the radio.

When famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson came to Detroit, she needed a singer to replace a member of her troupe and turned to Reese, who was only 13.

Jackson was so impressed by the teenager’s voice that she enlisted her for a summer tour, and Reese went on to tour with her for five summers. In later years she would remark that she would never forget what she learned from the legendary gospel singer, including “how to communicate with people through song.”

Her love of music drew her to singing at local clubs, where Deloreese Patricia Early adopted a new name. New York agent Lee Magid recognized her talent and in 1953 booked her to sing with Erskine Hawkins’ orchestra.

A recording contract followed, and she quickly turned out two hits, And That Reminds Me and Don’t You Know? Soon she was singing in the country’s best night spots and appearing on TV variety shows.

In 1979 she was taping a segment of The Tonight Show when, as she recalled later, “I hit a horrendous note – the flattest I’ve ever sung.”