A Legend Among Stars

By

Della Reese

A legend in the entertainment industry, Della Reese has blazed a trail and opened doors of opportunity for many women.

At six years of age Ms. Reese began what became an amazing career. She began singing in church, and by age 13 she experienced the most thrilling opportunity of her life – an opportunity to sing with world-renown gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Under Mahalia’s tutelage she learned how to communicate with the masses through song. It became an art form that Ms. Reese mastered and it helped her win over audiences from all backgrounds.

She spent three consecutive summers singing with Mahalia Jackson. Other opportunities followed, and she formed a gospel group, The Meditation Singers. The group won a contest in Detroit’s famed Flame Show Bar, and she signed her first recording contract with Jubilee Records in 1953.

Though she was not singing gospel music at that time, Ms. Reese remained close to her gospel roots, and it kept her grounded. “I found out that I could make a living singing what you all call secular music. Of course, the people at the church said that I had sold my soul to the devil, God had turned his back on me, and I was never going to be happy and successful…I have always tried to remain above reproach because I was holding onto my spirituality even though I was singing songs that were not gospel songs,” recalls Ms. Reese.

Singing secular music exposed her to such talents as Dinah Washington, Sara Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday and others. This helped her to develop a style that garnered a national celebrity status for her.

Singing was not her only talent. She appeared on many classic television shows such as the Ed Sullivan Show and the Perry Como show. She was the first female to host The Tonight Show and soon after was she asked to host her own talk show. As the first black woman to host a television show, a precedent was set for other black women, as well as women in general who chose careers in television.

Following her talk, she appeared in many comedic and dramatic acting roles. Her role in the American spiritual classic, Touched by An Angel, allowed her to combine everything that she learned from her parents, Mahalia Jackson and others into a powerful role that appealed to audiences of varied backgrounds.

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