Della Reese, best known as the boss of a band of divine messengers on the 1990s TV series Touched By an Angel but started her career decades earlier as an earthy pop singer, died on Nov. 19. She was 86.
Reese's deep and often rousing gospel-fueled voice was powerful and rested somewhere between Dinah Washington, Pearl Bailey and Eartha Kitt on the pop spectrum, depending on the song. Yet her talk-sing approach was an acquired taste. Only two of her albums charted high up in the rankings while most of her singles reached only double and triple digits—except for Don't You Know? in 1959, which reached #2 on the Billboard pop chart. Much of her failure to catch on was a result of the lackluster material served up by her producers, her tendency to roar while signing and the failure of her labels to craft an image for her.
Born in Detroit, Reese was a role model to many of Motown's female singers, who were being groomed to become super-club soul vocalists. When I interviewed Martha Reeves (center) of Martha and the Vandellas, she told me that Reese held a special place in her heart:
While I sang Dancing in the Street, I thought about Riopelle St., where I grew up on Detroit’s East Side. We had street-dance parties there all the time. I loved the East Side. When I came up with the Vandellas’ name, it combined Van—for Van Dyke St., the East Side’s main boulevard—and the first name of singer Della Reese, whose voice I admired."
For me, Reese was unbeatable when she sang ballads. Up-tempo numbers never quite fit, leaving her scorching songs instead of singing them seductively. However, on slower material (the slower the better), Reese's simmering vibrato curled around the lyric, and she often had a tight fix on the height of her flame.
My two favorite Della Reese albums are The Story of the Blues (1958), arranged by Sy Oliver; and Della (1960), arranged by Neal Hefti. Also wonderful are singles Reese recorded in the late 1950s, including Don't You Know, It's Magic, How Can You Not Believe Me and And That Reminds Me.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Della Reese's The Story of the Blues here and Della here.
Many of her albums and singles are available at Spotify.
JazzWax clip: Here's Don't You Know?...
Here's You're Driving Me Crazy, arranged by Neal Hefti...