Della Reese (1931-2017)

Della Reese, best known as the boss of a band of earth-bound divine messengers on the 1990s TV series Touched By an Angel who began her career decades earlier in recording studios and supper clubs as an earthy pop singer, died on Nov. 19. She was 86.

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Reese’s deep and often rousing gospel-fueled voice was powerful and rested somewhere between the styles of Dinah Washington and Pearl Bailey on the pop spectrum. Yet her talk-sing approach was an acquired taste. Only two of her albums landed on the Billboard chart while most of her singles reached only double and triple digits on the pop charts. The exception was Don’t You Know? in 1959, which reached #2. Much of her failure to catch on as a recording artist was a result of the lackluster material she was given by RCA and ABC-Paramount, labels that for whatever reason also failed to craft a distinct image for her.

Born in Detroit, Reese was a role model to many of Motown’s female singers, who were being groomed to become supper-club soul vocalists. When I interviewed Martha Reeves (above, 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. Uncomfortable with swing, uptempo numbers often were poor fit for Reese, compelling her to scorch songs rather than sing them seductively. However, on slower material (the slower the better), Reese’s simmering vibrato curled around the lyric, and she kept a handle on her vocal 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. Both are a good place to start if you’re new to Reese and curious about her. 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.

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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…

Note: Here’s the New York Times’s obit of Reese.