|Akron Beacon Journal, April 19, 1964
|Della Reese and Mike Douglas in 1964
By JACK MAJOR
Performers who spend a week as co-host of “The Mike Douglas Show” in Cleveland generally find it a pleasant assignment. Douglas is an easy-going, personable man to work with and he seems to thrive in an informal atmosphere. The program’s format allows each co-host to do just about anything he or she has ever wanted to do before an audience, and the pay – about $5,000 – is good for a week’s work.
There’s only one drawback: Hunger pangs.
Douglas’ guest hosts are night people. They take advantage of whatever nightlife they can find in Cleveland and sleep as late as possible every morning.
As late as possible is 10 a.m. – when the Douglas rehearsal begins. That rehearsal continues until show time, which means there is no break for lunch until after the program. Even then the co-hosts can’t immediately leave. There are autographs to sign and people to meet.
That was the situation recently when I approached Della Reese in hopes of starting our scheduled interview. I was just about to introduce myself when a fellow cut ahead of me and said the magic word: “Lunch.”
Della is a robust five-foot-eight and she was running on empty. “Great idea,” she said. “I’ve got to stick around for an interview, but I’ll be with you in 10 minutes.”
Ten minutes? That’s hardly time enough to get warmed up. It takes that long to get through the asinine interview foreplay – “Is it always this cold in Cleveland?” ... “We had a marvelous show today; did you see it?” ... “Let’s see, you said you’re from Akron. Is that in Ohio?”
So when Reese and I were finally alone, I fired questions at her in hopscotch fashion jumping from subject to subject very quickly.
She noticed it and snapped, “Whatsamattah honey, are YOU in a hurry?”
We finished the interview two hours later. Oh, I didn’t let her starve; I tagged along while she ate with some friends. But the one thing Reese seems to enjoy more than eating (or performing) is talking ... and she does so frankly, unflinchingly and sometimes with the subtlety of a Marine Corps drill sergeant.
It’s fun to listen ...
“I began singing in church when I was six. I went into gospel singing from there, performing for a time with the Clara Ward Singers and Mahalia Jackson. Later I formed my own group, The Meditation Singers, but quit gospel singing altogether when I was 22. I got hungry.
“Jesus may look after His flock, but He sure doesn’t feed them.
“My last performance was in Lynchburg, Virginia. We were there 10 days and when we divided the money we collected – we hadn’t charged admission – each singer received $3.65.
“So I talked with my minister about going into the pop music field. I didn’t know if it would be proper. He told me to go ahead, saying it wasn’t what I did that mattered, but how I did it.
“Then I started touring with rock ‘n’ roll shows. They were the only jobs I could get. I came on stage right after Chuck Berry and I could hear people in the audience saying, ‘Who is that?’ and ‘Whatinhell is she doing here?’ ”
[Note: I had seen one of those shows, either in Syracuse or in Akron while I was attending Kent State University. Hers was the only name on the bill that I did not recognize, but after that evening I never forgot it. Oddly, but by 1964 she was a much bigger star than Chuck Berry, who temporarily had been relegated to oblivion, but enjoyed a comeback in the ‘60s after The Beatles revived an old Berry hit, “Roll Over Beethoven.”]
Reese was in the pop music business about five years before she had a hit, “Don’t You Know,” a ballad fashioned from “Musetta’s Waltz” in “La Boeheme.”
A steady string of hits elevated her from rock ‘n’ roll shows to the cover charge status of the saloon circuit – Las Vegas, Miami and New York. She also is considered a giant among younger generation pop singers and is often grouped with Nancy Wilson and Barbara Streisand in a listing of today’s Big Three female singers.
Her ballad style is unusually appealing, but Reese is even better when she is belting a song. “Bill Bailey” had been done to death until Reese brought it back to life with her entertaining interpretation.
The civil rights movement has had a noticeable effect on the way white people treat Reese.
“Usually people bend over backward to be nice to me,” she said. “I guess they’ve got to prove they’re not prejudiced. Then there are a few nuts who have nothing to prove – unless it is how much they hate Negroes.
“I don’t think being a Negro has limited my opportunities. There are a few clubs I don’t play, but the choice is mine, not theirs.
“I signed a contract last year for a concert down South. When I got there I learned I was expected to do two shows – one for whites, one for blacks. Well, with a face the color of mine, I’ve just got to be against segregation, so I broke the contract.”
Reese’s conversation never slows down, even when it approaches the rocky moments in her personal life. She is single, but has a four-year-old daughter from a brief marriage (her second) and an 11-month-old baby she adopted a few months ago.
Neither marriage got off the ground, so it seems to Reese that she has been single all her life.
“I used to sulk about that a lot,” she said. “I was on the road most of the time ... and alone. I worried so much about being unhappy that I forgot how to try to be happy. I’m finally discovering a person can be alone much of the time and still enjoy life.
“I try to spend a lot of time with my children at our home in New Rochelle, N.Y., but I can’t stay with them too long. I’ve got to work to pay the bills.”
Reese’s second marriage was one of those things you might see in a poorly done television melodrama. The man was divorced – well, he said he was – before his wedding to Reese, but a few weeks later she was visited by a young woman who produced papers that proved the man really belonged to her.
“The girl said she wouldn’t cause any trouble. All I had to do was give her $25,000.”
Did she pay?
“Heck, no!” said Reese. “I tied a ribbon around my husband’s neck and delivered him instead of the money.”