I recently learned that my aunties mother was a midwife and delivered Lola Falana! Her name was Lola -hence Lola Falana’s name.. 😉
Falana’s father left Cuba to become a welder in the United States, where he met his wife. She spent most of her childhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By the age of three she was dancing, and by age five she was singing in the church choir. By the time she was in junior high school, she was already dancing in nightclubs to which she was escorted by her mother. Pursuing a musical career became so important to Falana that, against her parents’ wishes, she left Germantown High School a few months before graduation and moved to New York City.
Her first dancing gig was at “Small’s Paradise” in Harlem. Dinah Washington, the “Queen of Blues”, was influential in fostering Lola’s early career.
While dancing in a nightclub, Falana was discovered by Sammy Davis Jr., who gave her a featured role in his 1964 Broadway musical Golden Boy. Her first single, “My Baby”, was recorded for Mercury Records in 1965. Later in her career she recorded under Frank Sinatra’s record label. In the late 1960s Falana was mentored by Davis. In 1966 Davis cast her, along with himself, Ossie Davis, and Cicely Tyson, in her first film role in the film, A Man Called Adam.
Falana became a major star of Italian cinema beginning in 1967. In Italy she learned to speak fluent Italian while starring in three movies, the first of which was considered a spaghetti western. She was known as the “Black Venus”. During this time she was busy touring with Davis as a singer and dancer, making films in Italy, and reprising her role in Golden Boy during its revival in London.
In 1969 Falana ended her close working relationship with Sammy Davis Jr., though the two remained friends. “If I didn’t break away,” Lola told TV Guide, “I would always be known as the little dancer with Sammy Davis Jr. … I wanted to be known as something more.” The previous year, Sammy Davis Jr. was divorced by his second wife, May Britt, after Davis admitted to having had an affair with Falana.
In 1970, Falana made her American film debut in The Liberation of L.B. Jones and was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for New Star Of The Year – Actress for her performance. That same year she posed for Playboy magazine. She was the first black woman to model for a line of cosmetics that was not targeted solely at blacks, in the successful Faberge Tigress perfume ads. In those early years, she also starred in a few movies considered to be of the blaxploitation genre. She appeared at the Val Air Ballroom sponsored by Black Pride, Inc., in 1978.
American TV audiences became familiar with Falana during the early 1970s. She often appeared on The Joey Bishop Show and The Hollywood Palace, displaying her talent for music, dance, and light comedy. These appearances led to more opportunities.
She was the first supporting player hired by Bill Cosby for his much-anticipated variety hour, The New Bill Cosby Show, which made its debut on September 11, 1972 (her 30th birthday) on CBS. Cosby had met Falana in his college days, when he was a struggling comic and she was a 14-year-old dancing for $10 a show in Philadelphia nightclubs. Throughout the mid-1970s Falana made guest appearances on many popular TV shows, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Muppet Show, Laugh-In and The Flip Wilson Show. She also starred in her own television specials.
In 1975 her disco record “There’s A Man Out There Somewhere” reached #67 on the Billboard R&B chart. That same year, she returned to Broadway as the lead in the musical Doctor Jazz. Although the production closed after just five performances, Lola was nominated for a Tony Award and won the 1975 Theater World Award.
With help from Sammy Davis, Falana brought her act to Las Vegas and became a top draw there. By the late 1970s, she was considered the Queen of Las Vegas. She played to sold-out crowds at The Sands, The Riviera, and the MGM Grand hotels. Finally The Aladdin offered her $100,000 a week to perform. At the time, Falana was the highest paid female performer in Las Vegas. Her show ran twenty weeks a year and became a major tourist attraction.
While still playing to sell-out crowds in Las Vegas, Falana joined the cast of a short-lived CBS soap opera, Capitol, as Charity Blake, a wealthy entertainment mogul. In 1983, Falana was appearing at Bally’s hotel and casino in Atlantic City and, while playing baccarat, won a minority stake in the New York Mets, a stake she held until she sold it in 1988 for 14 million dollars to Frank Cashen.
Soon after the show was cancelled in 1987, she suffered a major setback; a relapse of multiple sclerosis. Falana’s relapse was severe; her left side was paralyzed, she became partially blind, and her voice and hearing were impaired. Recovery lasted a year and a half, during which she spent most of her time praying. Falana attributes her recovery to a spiritual experience which she described as “Being able to feel the presence of the Lord.”
She converted to Roman Catholicism and worked her newly found spirituality into her daily life. Though she performed again in Las Vegas shows in 1987, her practice of religion and faith became the center of her life. In 1995 she recorded the pro-life song “Don’t Cry, Mary” with Catholic artist Joseph Lee Hooker.
After another bout with multiple sclerosis in 1996, Falana returned to Philadelphia and lived with her parents for a short time. No longer performing, she now tours the country with a message of hope and spirituality. When not on tour, she lives a quiet life in Las Vegas working on the apostolate she founded, The Lambs of God Ministry. The ministry is focused on helping children who have been orphaned in Sub-Saharan Africa, and works closely with the group Save Sub-Saharan Orphans.
Her last known musical performance was in 1997, at Wayne Newton’s theater in Branson, Missouri.
From 1971 to 1975, Lola Falana was married to Feliciano “Butch” Tavares, one of five brothers of the popular R&B band Tavares.