Western New York Singer Marsha McWilson was 6 years old when she learned the ropes of performing. Her brother Roger was choirmaster at a large church, and he was a stickler for accuracy.
“I had to hit every note and look presentable … he groomed me,” McWilson said during a phone interview from her home in Niagara Falls. “It hit me when I picked up the mic, and everyone started clapping.”
That prep in St. John’s AME Church paved a musical path for her to follow, she said. She attributes the 100-voice choir, led by Kathy Jordan Sharpton (former wife of Al Sharpton), and pianist Bruce Parker, and related teachings for her gradual rise in the music industry.
McWilson plans to dazzle spectators during her first appearance at Batavia Downs Gaming and Hotel. The show goes on at 7 p.m., Oct. 14 at 8315 Park Road.
Expect glitz, glamour, a combination of jazzy blues, country, and Motown, plus assorted diva costumes. A full band, backup singers, and everything from Etta James and Tina Turner to Patsy Cline and Aretha Franklin will be featured.
“I’m bringing Vegas to Batavia,” she said. “Tell ‘em just get ready.”
The licensed beauty salon owner knows many facets of the industry, so the audience will get the full package of presentation, she said. Is there a connection between her beauty business and entertaining? Well of course there is, she said.
“That’s the biggest part of everything; I have the foundation already,” she said, adding a bit of snap to her voice. “I am the total package. I sing, write, produce, do hair, make-up and pick the clothes.”
The concert will be dedicated to her sister Vanessa, who succumbed to COVID, and to her high school music teacher and longtime friend, Marva Frails, for whom McWilson just sang during her funeral this past Thursday. Frails taught her young student the ABCs in music, which are the words Every Boy Does Fine and FACE to cover the musical notes on a staff. Frails also instilled the importance of being on time and not complaining, which McWilson intends to honor.
“She taught me so many things,” McWilson said. “I’m going to stop complaining.”
After losing many friends and family members to COVID, the energetic vocalist penned a song, “Rona Mae Blues,” which can be heard on her website. Accompanied by son Cameron Connor, she genuinely sings the blues with lines such as “If only I knew it was going to be the last time I saw you” and “You tore our lives apart.” Of all the uncertainties of the pandemic, she knows one thing for sure: “You won’t believe about coronavirus until your family dies,” she said. “My sister died Christmas Day. She didn’t think she had the virus.”
It’s hard to imagine McWilson being down, given her vibrant personality, but she has definitely walked through the blues, she said. Losing six family members in a short period of time, struggling with obesity, and knocking on doors that just wouldn’t open for her could have beat her down for good. But she got back up with a mission to benefit others, she said. She advocates getting the Covid vaccine and has an undying trust that she can do all things “through Christ who strengthens me.” As for those venues that wouldn’t book her, she believes, for being a black entertainer, she knows that better objectives are in her future.
“It’s not about the money; the message I have is to uplift them,” she said.
McWilson recalled seeing her brother Larry on the living room floor after he had died from a heart attack. Her brother Maurice tried to nudge her into reality.
“He said that if I didn’t change my life, it could be me,” she said, noting that other siblings had died of heart attacks. “I prayed, and I walked. I called it the mind, body, and soul program. I began to get up every day and walk around Hyde Park and I prayed that God would help me.”
She prayed for help to lose weight, gain inspiration to write and sing songs and forge a path toward a successful musical career. Two hundred pounds lighter, she hit a local pinnacle as the first black female inductee for the 2020 Niagara Falls Music Hall of Fame and has performed in jazz and blues festivals, at Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino, fundraisers and for a yearly 10-day Tom Joyner Foundation Fantastic Voyage cruise.
Had she not lost weight, McWilson knows she would have missed out on so much, including flying because she couldn’t squeeze into an airplane seat and giving birth to long-awaited “miracle” children. As one of a dozen siblings, she had a tight-knit family, though McWilson has been determined to do the work all by herself, she said. She was told that her gospel couldn’t be played on the radio and that she would never be able to fly in an aircraft. She found a way.
“I’m morphing through the pain … pain is what gets us through life,” she said. “My mother inspired me to go after what I want. She had 12 kids and none of them got in trouble. She’s my role model.”
Her favorite genre is Gospel, though she admits “the blues is getting me to the green.” She has appeared in three movies and sees herself doing more television work. Actually, her visual is much more specific than that.
“I see myself winning Grammys and Emmys … being so wealthy that I’ll be a blessing to help someone else,” she said.
For more about McWilson, check out her website at www.marshamcwilson.com. Concert tickets are $10 and may be purchased at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/marsha-mcwilson-tribute-performance-at-bata...
Photos submitted by Marsha McWilson.