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Making music at an old Italian social club

NIAGARA FALLS – Tony Marcolini spent most of his adult life working in factories, first at the Nabisco plant checking Triscuits and then across the country to Arizona and Washington.

At the same time, he began writing songs, learning to play guitar and starting bands that didn’t usually last.

That was until a move back home and a recent phone offer of a new steady gig at The Topper, a new restaurant and bar in an old 19th Street Italian Social Club. Music had always been something he did on the side.

“I’m excited about it at such a late stage, if I could put it that way,” said Marcolini, 52.

Fifteen years ago, he returned to this city and started a blues band he calls Big Tobacco, named for a fictitious blues player he made up.

“It’s mostly just me and my music, and I have a backup band,” he said. “I sing and play the guitar. I have a drummer and a bass player, and sometimes I have a keyboard player.”

The CD “To Hell with the Blues,” which he put out with his songs in about 2004, led to the honor of having two songs played on the air by local public radio blues DJ Jim Santella of WBFO.

“I guess you could say that was my zenith,” he said. “He played my music on the radio. That was good enough for me. He’s a well-loved guy around here. You know that. Everybody who knows the blues knows him.”

He was playing out at local bars until complications from diabetes forced him to stop for a couple of years. He brought Big Tobacco back, started playing in bars again, and then six months ago a new owner reopened the dining room and club converted years ago from a neighborhood club, circa 1926.

Marcolini, who has run open-mic nights before, agreed to come with his band every Wednesday night from 6 to 9. “It’s developing a little slowly,” he said. “More and more people are learning about the menu and showing up for that, and we’ve got musicians coming down now.”

What kind of performances have there been so far?

We had a gentleman named Jimmy Garcia come down last week, and he’s going to be our special guest this week, and he’s a harp player. Harmonica. It’s kind of like an industry slang for harmonica. The mouth harp. He just showed up, sat in and started wailing away. Sometimes that chemistry just happens.

I’m sure in the future it’s going to develop into something where I’ll have many stories to tell actually.

You say people are coming for the menu. What’s it like?

Chilean sea bass. Mahi mahi. They have a great linguini and clam sauce. Rigatoni and meatballs is even great. They’ve got steaks and chops. Other than burgers and chicken wings. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. They make a mean burger here, too. You got a great wine list.

You started writing songs when you were working at a warehouse in Seattle boxing up ultrasound machines for a company that made them?

I was just starting to figure out the kind of music I wanted to play. Trying to figure out my direction and that as far as music and what I was … Blues … I just stayed with that genre and went from there with my writing.

I was writing all kinds of music of my own. Rock songs, blues, love songs, ballads. Anything that came to mind.

What were your influences?

I grew up with all the standards like Led Zeppelin, bands like that. Bands like Yes.

So you’ve made a living with music since you moved back to Niagara Falls?

I was able to work enough to get by. I had a girlfriend. She was working at the time. We made ends meet.

Are you putting together another CD?

I got the music together. It’s just a matter of mixing it down and adding some vocals and drums to it. And reproducing it, making copies and handing them out and see what people think.

I’m so curious about the old Nabisco plant. What was it like working there?

Nothing better than the smell of fresh Triscuits coming out of the oven and coming up on the belt.

The smell of that coconut and peanut oil, and they’re still warm, and every once in a while you reach out and grab one and test it.

My dad worked for years at Nabisco; he retired from there. They always did a lot of hiring. Anybody could have got a job there at the time.

That would have been the early ’80s. That would have been ’83, ’84.

I was heart-broken when it closed. It was an institution in this city. I think there’s a plant in Canada now. That was a newer facility. That’s why the one up here shut down. It was antiquated.

Do you still like Triscuits?

They don’t taste the same. They don’t use the coconut or peanut oil in them anymore. That’s a little secret they don’t tell you.

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