Angel Of The American Stage
Della Reese has been a mainstay in American popular culture for nearly fifty years. As both a singer and an actress, she has attained star status. She has had numerous hit records and appeared in several hit television series. At the same time, she has maintained her roots in the church. She is an ordained minister- the founder and pastor of her own church. Few artists display Della Reese’s dedication or integrity.
Then again, very few artists have managed to accomplish what Della Reese has. She has garnered recognition in three separate professional fields; becoming, in the process, a household name. No stranger to angels herself, Della has been touched by them all her life, defying death on more than one occasion.
She was born Deloreese Patricia Early on July 6th, 1931. The youngest of six children, Deloreese grew up on the eastside of Detroit, with her loving mother, Nellie, who was a housekeeper and maid and Richard, her father who worked in a steel mill during the week, but disappeared on the weekends. Her mother (whom she was later told was actually her grandmother), loved to attend the movies. And it was by imitating film stars to entertain her family, that young Deloreese first learned to perform.
A member of the neighborhood Baptist church from a very early age, Deloreese was blessed as a singer and entertainer. She joined her church choir at the age of six. In 1945, Mahalia Jackson, known as the “Queen Of Gospel Music,“ on a tour stop in Detroit, heard young Deloreese singing with the choir. Jackson asked Deloreese to join her ensemble. With that, the thirteen year old set off to tour with Jackson’s company.
Della later recalled, “This opportunity to sing with the world’s foremost gospel singer was a thrilling experience. 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.”
But the young Deloreese also learned some harsh lessons in her time with the Jackson troupe. While touring the South, she was exposed to racial discrimination. She soon came to understand that in the South, blacks were not to enter a “white” restaurant. They were allowed only to order food from a rear service window. There were other indignities as well. “When I was with Mahalia,” she said, “and I couldn’t use the public bathrooms, I had to go squat behind a bush. It was very insulting to me…” It was the youngster’s first exposure to racial prejudice, but it was not to be her last.
After high school, in 1947, she enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit, majoring in psychology. It was there that Deloreese formed the female gospel group, the Meditation Singers- an ensemble registered in the “Who’s Who of Gospel Music.”
But, quite unexpectedly, her mother died. In order support her herself, Deloreese was forced to quit school. She took a succession of jobs. She drove a truck and a taxi, performed clerical services and was a barber and hair stylist; while she continued to sing gospel music with the Meditations, as well as with other gospel groups such as the Clara Ward Singers, the Roberta Martin Singers, and Beatrice Brown’s Inspirational Singers.
Though she loved music, Deloreese did not consider singing as an actual career. In an interview, she later said, “I was interested in singing, but I thought of it as something to do when you didn’t have anything else to do.” However, in 1949, after receiving encouraging words from the pastor of her church to pursue singing as a vocation, she began to sing, acting as hostess at a nightclub in a local bowling alley, for twenty-three dollars a week.
Her fortunes improved in 1951, when she won a contest staged by a Detroit newspaper, in which readers voted Deloreese as their favorite local singer. Her prize was a week-long engagement at Detroit’s prestigious Flame Showbar in Detroit- a regular stop on the jazz circuit for innumerable music greats, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstein and Al Hibbler, among many others.
At the time, she was married to a Detroit factory worker named Vermont Adolphus Bon Taliaferro. Because Deloreese Taliaferro would not fit on the nightclub marquee, she initially decided to shorten her name to Pat Ferro. But, the response to that first week’s engagement was so enthusiastic, that her run was extended, eventually to eighteen weeks. By the end of that run, Pat Ferro had changed her stage-name yet again, splitting her first name into Della Reese.
Soon, Della was regularly headlining her own shows at the Flame Showbar. Though her roots were still in gospel music, exposure to the best singers in popular music helped Della to formulate an unique vocal style of her own- combining jazz and blues phrasings with her own gospel influences. Over the next two years, Della became a fixture at the Flame
It was during her engagement at the Flame Showbar that she attracted the attention of New York agent Lee Magid, who agreed to represent her. In 1953, Della moved to New York city, where Magid found her work as a vocalist with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra.
Within a year, she had left the Hawkins fold for a solo career, signing a recording contract with Jubilee Records. Her first records were the hits “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm, ” “Time After Time” and “In The Still Of The Night,” which sold 500,000 copies. Three years later, in 1957, Della Reese scored her first gold record with the million-selling Top 20 hit “And That Reminds Me Of You.”
With the exposure from that hit, she was voted “Most Promising Girl Singer of 1957” by many music industry business journals and publications, including Billboard, Cashbox and Variety. Soon Della was appearing on all the popular television variety shows, including Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” and Jackie Gleason’s show, as well as Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night showcase. In 1958 she appeared in the film musical, Let’s Rock, which co-starred Julius La Rosa, Phyllis Newman and Conrad Janis.
In 1959, Della signed a lucrative new contract with RCA. Shortly thereafter, she scored her biggest hit, “Don’t You Know.” Others had tried before to adapt Giacomo Puccini’s beautiful melody “Musetta’s Waltz,” from La Boheme, into a pop song, but it was Della’s interpretation that met with both critical and public endorsement. Della received a Grammy nomination on the strength of that, her greatest hit.
The success of “Don’t You Know” propelled Della’s live performance schedule through the next decade. She continued to be a regular guest on all the popular television variety shows, logging over three hundred television appearances: including many on the shows of Perry Como, Pat Boone, Joey Bishop, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin, as well as the Hollywood Palace. All tolled, Della appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show over one hundred times; over twenty times in a single season! She was the first-ever female guest-host to substitute for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.
In addition to her television appearances, she became a fixture on the Las Vegas club circuit, throughout the ‘60s. But it was in Las Vegas that Della again experienced the indignities of racial discrimination. Despite her widespread popularity and fame, segregation was still a common practice, even in Las Vegas in the ‘60s. Della later wrote that she “had to stay in hotels on the other side of town.”
“In those days black entertainers could work on the strip, but we couldn’t go in the casino, nor could we eat or sleep in those hotels. The only place to stay was all the way across town at a hotel aptly named the Dust Bowl.”
Ed Sullivan was deeply upset when he learned of the poor treatment she had received. To help her situation, Sullivan and his wife regularly extended to Della an invitation to join them, dining out at the finest clubs on the Las Vegas strip. No club owner or restaurateur would dare to stand up to the powerful Sullivan. Eventually, Della was, begrudgingly, accepted into the Vegas club scene.
For the remainder of the decade of the ‘60s, Della continued to be a sure-draw, singing in nightclubs, not only in Las Vegas, but across the country. However, as the ‘60s drew to a close, American culture and musical tastes underwent a drastic transformation. Rock and roll began to dominate radio airwaves. Nightclubs and lounge singers fell out of fashion.
Necessity dictated that Della seek another means of employment, in order to supplement her diminishing income as a musical performer. Her situation afforded for her the opportunity to verify a long held belief: “If you can make people believe in your songs of blues and sadness, when you don’t feel that way… well, that takes acting ability I always knew I had.”
Della made her television acting debut in 1968, portraying the owner of a disco on an episode of “Mod Squad.” The exposure from that appearance, as well as from her stint hosting the Tonight Show, led to an offer to host her own talk show. In 1969, “Della” was unveiled, a series syndicated by RKO. This made Della Reese the first black woman ever to host her own television talk show. And though the series was cancelled after only two seasons, it served as a distinctive model for Oprah Winfrey’s own series some twenty years later.
A far greater misfortune struck her in 1970, shortly after her series had been cancelled, when she absentmindedly walked into a plate glass door. Della was nearly decapitated by falling sheets of glass. Miraculously, she survived that disaster, despite sustaining critical, life-threatening injuries and nearly bleeding to death.
Once she recovered, Della resumed her career as a nightclub performer. Her status among the upper echelon of singers, secured for her engagements, when lesser talents were going unemployed. She entertained in many of the nation’s most prominent establishments, including the Coconut Grove in Hollywood, the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, and the Apollo Theatre and Copacabana in New York. She also toured extensively, performing in Europe, Asia, and South America. In 1972, she had a minor disco hit with “If It Feels Good Do It.”
Then, on the television series, “Sanford And Son,” Redd Foxx’s Fred Sanford began regularly to refer to Della Reese and Lena Horne as the ultimate black super-stars. Della made several guest appearances on that series as a result. She also made guest acting appearances on other series, and starred in a few television pilots. But her first role as a regular cast member on a network series came in 1976, with her portrayal of Della Rogers on “Chico And The Man.” However, Freddie Prinze, the series star, committed suicide in January of 1977. Despite attempts by producers to retool the show, it was cancelled the following year.
Then, in 1978, Della took a role as a “substitute teacher” when Gabe Kaplan left “Welcome Back Kotter” in a salary dispute. But that series ended its run at the conclusion of the season. Della continued to find work, with innumerable television series appearances in both dramatic and comedic roles.
Della’s vocal talents, never far from the fore, were showcased on numerous television specials, including, “The Great American Gospel Show,” “The Story Of Amazing Grace,” “Della Reese And Woody Herman” and “the Christmas Special With Mel Torme And Della Reese.”
In 1980, she again narrowly averted tragedy, when, while singing, Della suffered a brain aneurysm, during the taping of a segment for “The Tonight Show.” Near death for several days, she faced the possibility that she might never make a full recovery. But her faith helped her to overcome that setback too.
Resiliently, she returned to the RCA label to record an album of songs adapted from the classics. In 1983 Della founded the Understanding Principles for Better Living Church in Los Angeles, California. In 1987, she entered divinity school and became an ordained minister. She has continued to regularly preach on Sundays at her church ever since. Della’s strong religious convictions are evident in the inclusion of black spirituals in virtually all of her nightclub performances. In 1987 Della was nominated for a Grammy as “Best Female Vocal Soloist” in Gospel music.
She returned to the big screen in the role of Vera in the 1989 movie Harlem Nights, a film which featured a memorable fight scene between Della and Eddie Murphy. In 1992 she starred in a cabaret revue, “Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues,“ created by her husband, Franklin Lett. The show opened in Hollywood, to rave reviews. She later toured with the show.
In 1994, Della returned to television, playing the part of the wise angel, Tess, in the network series “Touched By an Angel,” a role for which she seemed imminently qualified, given her own brushes with death and miraculous recoveries. She continued with the series, for five years, despite a dispute with the network in 1997.
Still, music remains an essential part of Della’s life, as well. In 1998 she was again nominated for a Grammy as “Best Female Vocalist” in Gospel music. She continues to perform in clubs and concert halls (increasingly with symphony orchestras) and at music festivals, to unrestrained critical and public acclamation.
For nearly fifty years, Della Reese has been in the public eye. For twenty five years she was a pop music star, incorporating elements of jazz and blues into her stage performances, while never relinquishing her bond with gospel music. Her inestimable list of hits and gold records is testament to her legendary status among singers of the ‘50s and ‘60s. To this day, she remains as a fertile source of rich musical vitality and expansive artistic scope.