Della Reese, who had a successful career as a jazz singer before gaining prominence as the star of the TV show Touched by an Angel, died Sunday night in her California home at age 86. She leaves behind her husband, Franklin Lett, a film producer and concert promoter, Variety reported.
“She was an incredible wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and pastor, as well as an award-winning actress and singer. Through her life and work she touched and inspired the lives of millions of people,” actress Roma Downey, who co-starred with Reese on “Touched By an Angel,” said in a statement, adding that “heaven has a brand new angel.”
Her professional singing career, which spanned the ‘50s and ’60s, reached a peak in 1959 with her No. 1 R&B and No. 2 pop hit “Don’t You Know.” Reese inched her way into acting, one roll at a time, landing regular appearances on several programs in the 1970s. But she’s best known for her leading role on the CBS program “Touched by an Angel,” which network executives cancelled after its 1994 debut season. However, fans pressed CBS in a letter writing campaign to bring back the program. After that, it continued on air for nine seasons, landing Reese several NAACP Image Awards, two Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe nomination.
Reese, a Detroit native, began singing gospel music at age 6, and returned to her roots by becoming an ordained minister in the early ‘80s. Later in life, she increasingly focused on ministry. Her cause of death was not immediately announced. But she battled through several health crises, including a brain aneurysm, at least two brain surgeries and type 2 diabetes. Reese was married four times, including a brief marriage to jazz legend Duke Ellington’s son, Mercer Ellington.