Television Trailblazer: The Story of Della Reese and DELLA
By John C. Alsedek:
If you were/are a fan of the TV series Touched By an Angel, you’re already very familiar with Della Reese—she played the tough but loving supervisor angel Tess, who served as a mentor to young angelic caseworker Monica (Fiona Downey) on CBS from 1994–2003. If you’re more in my age range, you remember Della as one of those people who guest starred on everything in the 1970s and 1980s: The Love Boat, Welcome Back, Kotter, Sanford & Son (with her dear friend Redd Foxx), The A-Team, MacGyver, Night Court, and dozens of other shows.
BUT . . . if you’re in your late fifties or older, you may remember Della Reese from her groundbreaking talk show, Della (also known as The Della Reese Show). It aired for just one season, but one can easily see its impact on television even today in the success of African-American women such as Oprah Winfrey and Whoopie Goldberg.
From a very early age, Della knew that she wanted to go into show business. Born Delloreese Patricia Early on July 6th, 1931, in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood, she was the daughter of an African-American steelworker and a Cherokee mother. She began singing in church at age six, and by the time she was a pre-teen Della was going to the movies and then re-enacting performances by the likes of Bette Davis and Lena Horne. At thirteen, she got her first professional gig as a singer with gospel legend Mahalia Jackson’s group, touring nationally while also attending Cass Technical High School. She graduated at 16 and promptly formed her own gospel group, the Meditation Singers, while also attending Wayne State University. However, when her mother died suddenly and her father became seriously ill, Della left school to help support the family; she worked a variety of jobs (including truck driver and elevator operator) and began performing in jazz clubs. It was at this time that she shortened her name from Delloreese Early to Della Reese.
Her big break came when she won a gig at the famous Flame Show Bar; the original one week became two months, and Della was on her way to becoming one of Motor City’s top jazz singers. In 1953, she signed with Jubilee Records, eventually recording six albums with the company. After four years of slowly increasing popularity, she had her first big hit with the single "And That Reminds Me"; the song broke into the Pop Top Twenty and sold over a million copies. As a result, she was voted "Most Promising Singer" by Billboard and several other music publications.
Della’s star continued to rise at the end of the fifties. She moved over to RCA Records and promptly had her biggest hit to date with "Don’t You Know?" which went all the way to #2 on the pop charts and topped the R&B charts. She followed that up with three more singles that got into the Top 100: "Not One Minute More," "And Now," and "Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)." She also earned her first Grammy nomination for the 1960 album Della.
During the 1960s, Della continued to record, as well as doing tours and extensive time on the Las Vegas circuit. But she had a growing interest in television. She was already a very familiar face to audiences nationally, as she had dozens of variety show appearances to her credit, including The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, Pat Boone in Hollywood, and The Joey Bishop Show. So, when a producer approached her in 1968 about doing her own series, she jumped at the opportunity.
Della (also known as The Della Reese Show) ran for an hour every weekday. Filmed in Los Angeles and distributed in syndication by RKO, it was a hybrid talk/variety show that allowed Della Reese to showcase both her singing and her engaging conversational style. With assistance from her co-host, Jewish-American comedian Sandy Baron, Della introduced her audience to two or three guests per show—and what a collection of guests they were! Among the greats to appear on Della were Muhammad Ali, Eric Burdon, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Linda Ronstadt, and Soupy Sales; however, the show also featured up-and-coming talent, including a then-unknown Steve Martin.
One of the great charms of Della was just how deft Della Reese was at making sure that the guests were the center of attention, not her. She would on occasion perform musical numbers with them, but for the most part she kept the spotlight firmly on them and off herself—she treated them as "guests" in the best sense of the word.
Unfortunately, Della only lasted for one season, even though the show’s ratings were solid, and surprisingly good in Deep South markets that had been expected to be the program’s Achilles' heel due to expected unwillingness to promote a show starring an African-American woman. But it was indeed the color of Della’s skin that brought an end to the show, as she explained in an interview with the Archive of American Television in 2008: “The man who was selling our show said he couldn’t sell our show because my gums were black. That was his rationale—that my gums were not pink. Every time I smiled, I turned people off.” It was an ignominious ending to a trailblazing series. And to add insult to injury, all 200 episodes have been lost to time, only a handful of fragments remain today.
Della was heavily promoted on Kaiser Broadcasting, which at the time was a growing power nationally on the UHF dial but would follow Della into oblivion in just over a decade. But before it did, it witnessed the birth of television’s longest-running horror host, Svengoolie! We’ll be talking about Svengoolie’s career next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Suspense writer, producer and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.