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September 01, 2010
   

"IF YOU want the rainbow, you have got to put up with the rain," says Dolly Parton.

JUST BEFORE I dashed off to Italy, I spent an informative and delightful afternoon with two divine women -- the great singer Della Reese and the super actress of "Dallas" fame, Linda Gray. Della and Linda, along with Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Lainie Kazan, Elliott Gould and Gene Simmons join forces in a wonderful, touching little feature film, "Expecting Mary." (Russian-born Olesya Rulin, best known for her roles in Disney's "High School Musical" films, plays Mary.)

I had to travel way downtown to the chic and happening hostelry, The Crosby, which is cunningly and frustratingly crammed between Spring Street and ... something else. My cab driver had no idea where I was going, where he was going, or what route to take. However, he admitted freely he was new on the job and fresh to Manhattan. When we arrived in the vicinity, he turned off the meter, and said, "It's not fair I charge you because I don't know -- we'll find it." And indeed we did, in a very short amount of time. He got a nice tip.

I WAS at the Crosby to interview Linda Gray, but when I stepped up to the table in the lush lounge/bar, I found Linda, her irrepressible press rep, Jeffrey Lane, and the formidable Della Reese. Two for the price of one!

Hugs and handshakes ensued. Was I intruding on Miss Reese, whom I had not expected? "Not at all, honey, and call me Della."

Linda Gray I have interviewed many times. She looks fantastic. If she has ever succumbed to plastic surgery, it has been the most discreet and elegant work. Miss Gray is instantly recognizable. Linda's chief characteristic is an engaging, youthful energy, a vibrancy that no collagen filler can duplicate. (In this she reminds me of Joan Collins, who also generates energetic electricity -- these are women with purpose, drive and unquenchable vitality.)

Della Reese is majestic. And why not? Her rich voice has been known for decades. Who doesn't recognize her great hit, "Don't You Know?" which was adapted from the famous aria, "Muzetta's Waltz" from "La Boheme"?

Also in her hit parade: "And Now," "Some Day" ("You'll Want Me to Want You") and iconic albums such as "Classic Della" and "Waltz with Me, Della." She was the first black woman to ever host "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, and has had an array of dramatic illnesses and injuries to put Miss Elizabeth Taylor to shame. (La Liz never walked through a plate glass window!) Her many seasons on TV's "Touched By an Angel" gave her an entirely new audience in the '90s. She is still wowing 'em in concert and negotiating new record deals.

Della was grandly dressed and impressively bejeweled. It looked like the real stuff, and I said, "Della, you're working a lot of bling!" Lifting a sparkling wrist, she replied, "My man has been good to me!" indicating her handsome and genial hubby, Franklin Thomas Lett, who also acts as her manager.

DELLA, BY her mere presence, commands attention. One cannot help but be drawn to her. As it seemed she would have to leave us early, we all focused on her.

Della spoke with wry amusement of many things. She says she hardly knows what Della Reese products are out there. "Most of what I see are compilations. Each company I worked for sold their masters, and then those people sold their masters. Songs I recorded but were never released keep popping up!"

Does she see any money from it? Della laughed good-naturedly, "Not a cent! Nobody made money back then. We didn't own our songs; we didn't know anything. The success of a record might assure us club dates, and that's how we made any money at all."

Della told of her first royalty check for $5,000. "Honey, I never saw or even knew anybody who had $5,000 dollars! I cashed that check. At the time I had two pairs of worn down shoes. I went out, I bought 12 pairs of shoes. I placed them on the coffee table in my little room, one pair of shoes, a little bit of money next to them, a pair of shoes, a little money, until the coffee table was covered. I was very happy.

"Then, the man from the record company called. He said I owed them money! I went to see him and asked to look at the books. He showed me blue books, and when I looked them over, I saw he owed me money. Then I called my manager. They showed him red books, and it turned out the company owed me even more!"

Della laughs raucously, "Well, you know, I wasn't as sweet as I am now. I cursed him out and cursed his mama and his mama's mama. I called him and said I was from Detroit and I knew people who would take care of him. Of course I didn't. But I also didn't know he had a heart condition. He fell right over with a heart attack! Then, I was praying to God to save him, because I felt guilty.

"He did recover. And as soon as he did he voided my contract. But that was a blessing in disguise, because RCA picked me up and I did 'Don't You Know.' "

"YOUNG PEOPLE today are smart, they learned from us. They make their own deals and fortunes. Us? Ella, Dinah, Sarah, Sammy, Lena? We had nothing.

"And me? I almost killed myself on diet pills. They kept saying I'd never be a success unless I lost weight. So, from 18 to 35, I tried to be smaller." Della pauses, and says, "Now, I hate to be risque, but -- I had to wear two girdles. And because of my hips, they padded my bust to make me seem in proportion. It had nothing to do with my voice. My voice? I could barely breathe, let alone sing! But when I was 35 and went to California, I looked at those girdles and I said, 'Never again -- I don't care if I get as big as a truck. I was free, finally."

OF THE racial segregation of the time Della recalls, "There was nothing to do about it, nobody to complain to. We came through the back door, through the kitchen. My mother had scrubbed floors and would always say, 'This is so you'll never have to work in a kitchen.' And there I was in my gown and my jewels, standing in a kitchen, waiting to make my entrance. I wondered what my mama would have thought."

Della tells of two men who fought the injustice of the times -- Ed Sullivan and Frank Sinatra, both of whom stood up for what was right. Sullivan would take Della to the best restaurants in Vegas -- "People would walk out, but Ed would order a five-course dinner for me. He wanted to rub it in their faces. He was not at all a cold man -- he helped a lot." And Frank? "Why don't people tell the good things about him? One night in Vegas he coughed, and said 'I can't sing tonight.' The management freaked out. But no, Frank said he had no voice. 'What can we do?' they said. 'Well,' said Frank, 'You can move Sammy Davis into the suite next door to me, rather than having him miles away.' And they did. They had to. And when Sammy told Frank he was too guilty to stay in the luxury suite, 'while Lena Horne is all the way out there,' Frank ordered another suite for Lena. I know Frank was hard in some ways, but he was a great man in a lot of his dealings with people."

Before Della left to rest up before her next TV appearance with Linda Gray, I wondered why she had never played any of the NYC cabarets, like Cafe Carlyle or Feinstein's at the Regency? Totally deadpan, Della replied, "Nobody has ever suggested it." (Yikes! Stefanie Powers and Joan Collins are coming into Feinstein's -- God bless them. But they're not Della Reese.)

"Would you mind if I suggested it?" I said.

Della rose from the table, "Liz, I'll drive you over to the Regency right now!"

Well, we didn't do that, but I'm putting Feinstein's on notice -- book Della Reese!

TOMORROW: Part Two, Linda Gray.

(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com, or write to her c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.)

"IF YOU want the rainbow, you have got to put up with the rain," says Dolly Parton.

JUST BEFORE I dashed off to Italy, I spent an informative and delightful afternoon with two divine women -- the great singer Della Reese and the super actress of "Dallas" fame, Linda Gray. Della and Linda, along with Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Lainie Kazan, Elliott Gould and Gene Simmons join forces in a wonderful, touching little feature film, "Expecting Mary." (Russian-born Olesya Rulin, best known for her roles in Disney's "High School Musical" films, plays Mary.)

I had to travel way downtown to the chic and happening hostelry, The Crosby, which is cunningly and frustratingly crammed between Spring Street and ... something else. My cab driver had no idea where I was going, where he was going, or what route to take. However, he admitted freely he was new on the job and fresh to Manhattan. When we arrived in the vicinity, he turned off the meter, and said, "It's not fair I charge you because I don't know -- we'll find it." And indeed we did, in a very short amount of time. He got a nice tip.

I WAS at the Crosby to interview Linda Gray, but when I stepped up to the table in the lush lounge/bar, I found Linda, her irrepressible press rep, Jeffrey Lane, and the formidable Della Reese. Two for the price of one!

Hugs and handshakes ensued. Was I intruding on Miss Reese, whom I had not expected? "Not at all, honey, and call me Della."

Linda Gray I have interviewed many times. She looks fantastic. If she has ever succumbed to plastic surgery, it has been the most discreet and elegant work. Miss Gray is instantly recognizable. Linda's chief characteristic is an engaging, youthful energy, a vibrancy that no collagen filler can duplicate. (In this she reminds me of Joan Collins, who also generates energetic electricity -- these are women with purpose, drive and unquenchable vitality.)

Della Reese is majestic. And why not? Her rich voice has been known for decades. Who doesn't recognize her great hit, "Don't You Know?" which was adapted from the famous aria, "Muzetta's Waltz" from "La Boheme"?

Also in her hit parade: "And Now," "Some Day" ("You'll Want Me to Want You") and iconic albums such as "Classic Della" and "Waltz with Me, Della." She was the first black woman to ever host "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, and has had an array of dramatic illnesses and injuries to put Miss Elizabeth Taylor to shame. (La Liz never walked through a plate glass window!) Her many seasons on TV's "Touched By an Angel" gave her an entirely new audience in the '80s. She is still wowing 'em in concert and negotiating new record deals.

Della was grandly dressed and impressively bejeweled. It looked like the real stuff, and I said, "Della, you're working a lot of bling!" Lifting a sparkling wrist, she replied, "My man has been good to me!" indicating her handsome and genial hubby, Franklin Thomas Lett, who also acts as her manager.

DELLA, BY her mere presence, commands attention. One cannot help but be drawn to her. As it seemed she would have to leave us early, we all focused on her.

Della spoke with wry amusement of many things. She says she hardly knows what Della Reese products are out there. "Most of what I see are compilations. Each company I worked for sold their masters, and then those people sold their masters. Songs I recorded but were never released keep popping up!"

Does she see any money from it? Della laughed good-naturedly, "Not a cent! Nobody made money back then. We didn't own our songs; we didn't know anything. The success of a record might assure us club dates, and that's how we made any money at all."

Della told of her first royalty check for $5,000. "Honey, I never saw or even knew anybody who had $5,000 dollars! I cashed that check. At the time I had two pairs of worn down shoes. I went out, I bought 12 pairs of shoes. I placed them on the coffee table in my little room, one pair of shoes, a little bit of money next to them, a pair of shoes, a little money, until the coffee table was covered. I was very happy.

"Then, the man from the record company called. He said I owed them money! I went to see him and asked to look at the books. He showed me blue books, and when I looked them over, I saw he owed me money. Then I called my manager. They showed him red books, and it turned out the company owed me even more!"

Della laughs raucously, "Well, you know, I wasn't as sweet as I am now. I cursed him out and cursed his mama and his mama's mama. I called him and said I was from Detroit and I knew people who would take care of him. Of course I didn't. But I also didn't know he had a heart condition. He fell right over with a heart attack! Then, I was praying to God to save him, because I felt guilty.

"He did recover. And as soon as he did he voided my contract. But that was a blessing in disguise, because RCA picked me up and I did 'Don't You Know.' "

"YOUNG PEOPLE today are smart, they learned from us. They make their own deals and fortunes. Us? Ella, Dinah, Sarah, Sammy, Lena? We had nothing.

"And me? I almost killed myself on diet pills. They kept saying I'd never be a success unless I lost weight. So, from 18 to 35, I tried to be smaller." Della pauses, and says, "Now, I hate to be risque, but -- I had to wear two girdles. And because of my hips, they padded my bust to make me seem in proportion. It had nothing to do with my voice. My voice? I could barely breathe, let alone sing! But when I was 35 and went to California, I looked at those girdles and I said, 'Never again -- I don't care if I get as big as a truck. I was free, finally."

OF THE racial segregation of the time Della recalls, "There was nothing to do about it, nobody to complain to. We came through the back door, through the kitchen. My mother had scrubbed floors and would always say, 'This is so you'll never have to work in a kitchen.' And there I was in my gown and my jewels, standing in a kitchen, waiting to make my entrance. I wondered what my mama would have thought."

Della tells of two men who fought the injustice of the times -- Ed Sullivan and Frank Sinatra, both of whom stood up for what was right. Sullivan would take Della to the best restaurants in Vegas -- "People would walk out, but Ed would order a five-course dinner for me. He wanted to rub it in their faces. He was not at all a cold man -- he helped a lot." And Frank? "Why don't people tell the good things about him? One night in Vegas he coughed, and said 'I can't sing tonight.' The management freaked out. But no, Frank said he had no voice. 'What can we do?' they said. 'Well,' said Frank, 'You can move Sammy Davis into the suite next door to me, rather than having him miles away.' And they did. They had to. And when Sammy told Frank he was too guilty to stay in the luxury suite, 'while Lena Horne is all the way out there,' Frank ordered another suite for Lena. I know Frank was hard in some ways, but he was a great man in a lot of his dealings with people."

Before Della left to rest up before her next TV appearance with Linda Gray, I wondered why she had never played any of the NYC cabarets, like Cafe Carlyle or Feinstein's at the Regency? Totally deadpan, Della replied, "Nobody has ever suggested it." (Yikes! Stefanie Powers and Joan Collins are coming into Feinstein's -- God bless them. But they're not Della Reese.)

"Would you mind if I suggested it?" I said.

Della rose from the table, "Liz, I'll drive you over to the Regency right now!"

Well, we didn't do that, but I'm putting Feinstein's on notice -- book Della Reese!

TOMORROW: Part Two, Linda Gray.

(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com, or write to her c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.)



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