Niagara Gazette — Marsha McWilson has become a household name in Niagara Falls, her work with the community and charity events, along with her powerful voice have made her something of a local celebrity.
Last year, she made an interesting discovery. People who went to her performances often shouted for her to sing the music of Etta James, a popular blues singer known for hits like “At Last,” “The Wallflower” and “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” McWilson decided to listen to some of James’ music to see what he fans were talking about.
“When I looked her up I saw that she looked like me, and when I heard her sing, she sounded like me,” she said. “I never set out to do this, but when I heard her I lost my mind and I thought ‘this is it.’”
McWilson, who defines herself as a “soul singer,” has performed around the world. She has been singing the music of Etta James for the past year, she dresses up like James and even uses a faux mole to authenticate the look.
She was first featured performing as Etta James at the Niagara Falls Blues Festival. Her next performance is at renewed, 88-year-old club, The Topper.
With the motto, “come for dinner, stay for the show,” The Topper aims to entertain their patrons with the best musical performers in the area and provide them with a high quality menu. McWilson says it calls forth images of clubs where James might have performed in her heyday. She said it comes complete with a restaurant area, a bar area, a full stage and a dance floor.
“We are a venue that specializes in providing the highest quality music we can put on the stage,” said Carl DeFranco. “That’s why she’s playing here, because she is of that high caliber. She’s fantastic at what she does.”
DeFranco, who has owned The Topper since it reopened a year and a half ago, describes the club as “a jewel in the crown of Niagara Falls.” He said the food and events draw crowds from as far away as Toronto or Pennsylvania and the club is of such a style that it will really authenticate the Etta James experience.
“It’s like I’ve found my niche, people say, ‘I’ve heard you sing all your life, but I’ve never heard you sing like this. I’m ready to take this on the road and record it once I get permission,” McWilson said. “A soul singer is a person who is singing their emotions out of their heart. So I just embodied this woman and I just go crazy, and the people go crazy when they hear the songs.”
The McWilson family will also have a role in the show. Her 12-year-old son Cameron McWilson will be performing Michael Jackson songs from the Jackson Five era. Her 15-year-old son Jayden will also make an appearance.
Her husband, Howard McWilson, is the manager. Marsha gives him credit for being so active in the lives of their children which allows her to spend some time traveling and performing on the road.
While she keeps busy doing her Etta James routine, planning a new album and taking her talent to the road, Marsha is actively booking appointments for weddings, shows or other events. She can be reached at 579-0912. Her “Etta James Review” at The Topper will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, the club is located at 492 19th St. There is a $10 cover charge at the door.
“Marsha McWilson is a perfect fit at the topper,” DeFranco said. “It’s exactly what we look for, high quality, high energy, highly professional musical presentations. We’re happy to have her.”