Della Reese, the celebrated jazz and gospel singer, actress, and ordained minister, passed away last week at the age of 86, after a career that spanned seven decades. Reverends Irene Monroe and Emmett G. Price III joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio to reflect on Reese’s life and the impact she had on the musical and religious community.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
IRENE: I get up every morning and watch Della Reese. I watch reruns of Touched by an Angel on Uplift Entertainment, it comes on at eight o’clock, so from eight to ten I watch two episodes of Della Reese.
JIM: Why does she mean so much to you?
IRENE: Well, she’s a trifecta — she’s a trifecta, she can act, dance, and sing. She’s a child of the depression, she comes out of this very well-known enclave called the Black Bottoms of Detroit. Many people don’t know this, she was biracial: her mother was of Cherokee descent, her father was African-American. I loved her in “Harlem Nights” with Redd Foxx and Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. She was the first black woman to host a show, in 1969-1970. Isn’t that amazing?
JIM: So let’s ask the former professor of music, Emmett. What did she mean to you?
EMMETT: She was phenomenal, there’s no voice like that. It almost reminds you of your grandmother, who you wish would have been on record while she was cooking or while she was doing stuff around the home — at least, my grandmother — that wonderful sound. Here’s a woman who graduated from high school at 15. I mean, just the brilliance there, and the fact that she had phenomenal success as a recording artist during the 1960’s, which led to her being kind of the Oprah Winfrey before there was an Oprah. In addition to having her show, “Della,” she was the first black woman to guest host the Johnny Carson show.
IRENE: And she named the Van Dellas, Martha and the Van Dellas
EMMETT: She was a mentor!
IRENE: She has touched many souls.
Emmett G. Price III is a Professor and Founding Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Irene Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. To hear the full “All Revved Up” segment, click on the audio player above.