May 19, 1980 12:00 PM

The Tonight show taping was going well last October 3, and singer Delia Reese had never felt better. “Then I hit a horrendous note—the flattest I’ve ever sung,” she recalls. “My left knee buckled and I fell to the floor.” Bandleader Doc Severinsen and substitute host Richard Dawson rushed to her aid, and a doctor came onstage from the audience. “I never lost consciousness, but I wasn’t in control,” Delia remembers. Attendants who carried her to an ambulance heard her pleading, “Lord, help me. God, help me.”

The initial prognosis was grim. “For the first 36 to 48 hours she hovered near death,” says her physician, Dr. Jack Wohlstadter. Doctors couldn’t be sure what had happened, and Delia, 48, was terrified by their uncertainty. Not until a week later did an arteriogram reveal that an aneurysm had ruptured in the right side of her brain. Two others, on the left side, lay near her optic nerve and threatened her vision. “Even if an operation were successful,” she remembers being told, “I could have ended up as a vegetable.”

Fearful that she might never sing again, Delia drew on her Baptist faith to fight back. “I started saying, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I am healed,’ and I kept saying it a thousand times a day.” Two weeks later she traveled to London, Ontario, where Dr. Charles Drake had recently designed a new type of surgical clip to protect a patient’s optic nerve during neurosurgery. Because he had not yet used it, however, he hesitated to try it on Delia. Only at the last minute did he go ahead. “Now he says it was just a second thought,” notes his patient with a throaty laugh. “I say it was God telling him, ‘Use it.’ ”

Her progress after two operations was remarkable. Within five weeks she was back taping her Campbell’s soup commercials. In January she resumed her supper club rounds at Florida’s Disney World. “Coming back to an audience was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “I shouldn’t have taken the money, but I did.”

The daughter of a Detroit steelworker, Delia first sang professionally at the age of 6, when she made $5 a week with a church choir on radio. Later she planned to become a psychiatrist, but dropped out of Wayne State University when her mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Turning to show business, she was voted “Most Promising Girl Singer of 1957” by Billboard and Variety. Since then she has appeared in concert, cabarets and movies, had her own syndicated TV talk show, and played a no-nonsense landlady on the NBC series Chico and the Man.

Twice married and divorced, Delia shares a spacious Bel Air mansion with her daughter, Delia, 20, who is studying art history at UCLA. A frequent visitor is Dr. James Barger, 39, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and an old family friend whom she helped educate and legally adopted 15 years ago. There is talk of a new romantic interest she met in New York, but Delia will say no more about him. “We have a nice calm relationship,” she says, “and I’d hate to do anything that might send it askew.” As for her health, she frets more about her weight, which she once battled with periodic starvation diets, than about her near-fatal collapse and its aftermath. “I’ve had long hair and short hair and braids, and so what?” she exclaims, alluding to the growing-out Afro that barely covers her scars. “I feel blessed, and I don’t think I should hide the blessing.”

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