Della Reese, 'Touched By An Angel' Star And Singer, Dies At 86 : The Two-Way When she was cast as an angel boss on the long-running CBS spiritual drama, Reese had been famous for decades as a gospel-influenced R&B performer, TV guest star and talk show fixture.
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Della Reese, 'Touched By An Angel' Star And Singer, Dies At 86

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Della Reese, 'Touched By An Angel' Star And Singer, Dies At 86

Della Reese, 'Touched By An Angel' Star And Singer, Dies At 86

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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...

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