Kittie Marilyn Dillow Cotton
1933 - 2016
Marilyn Cotton, a lyric soprano, enjoyed a remarkable career as a singer of sacred music in all genres. A well-known soloist in the Seventh-day Adventist church, she sang in religious television broadcasting from its pioneering days to the present and was a featured soloist in countless evangelistic crusades in countries around the world.
Marilyn was born in Red Bank, Tennessee, the youngest of three daughters of Oddie C. and Thelma Bolton Dillow. Her mother was organist for the local Seventh-day Adventist Church and a music teacher. One sister, who was sixteen years older, was an accomplished violinist and singer with an exceptional voice. Marilyn, who had been singing since she was toddler and had made her first recording at age three, recently recalled when the level of her talent caught her mother's attention and how her musical training started:
I was playing with a girlfriend one day when I was seven or eight years of age and my mother came in the room and said, "What are you doing?" We had been playing what we called a piano game where my friend would play a note and I without looking would tell her what the note was. She immediately contacted a music conservatory in nearby Chattanooga and they told her it was perfect or absolute pitch, a gift that few had, and invited her to bring me in for an examination.
That led to piano lessons and later to serious voice study with an emphasis on light opera under a master teacher, Ellen Turrentine, a former opera singer from Italy who was then residing in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The eventual choice to swing over and concentrate on gospel music came easily as it was my first love.
Marilyn's mother was a leader in social activities in their town, and Marilyn often sang at meetings of the different clubs her mother was associated with. She sang professionally at age eleven as a paid member of the choir at the Episcopal Church in Chattanooga and from age fourteen to seventeen sang the soprano solos in performances of the Messiah presented by the Southern Missionary College, now Southern Adventist University, Chorale.
At age eighteen she was hired as a soloist to sing on Faith for Today, a pioneering religious telecast in New York City hosted by William Fagal. During this time, she studied voice with Charles Norman Granville, a Metropolitan Opera coach and Madam McClune Williamson, an artist who had sung years earlier with the celebrated Enrico Caruso. She also had an opportunity to sing sixteen times in Carnegie Hall when Fagal and the quartet held evangelistic meetings there. She would later observe that "having learned of that great hall in my youth and of the great musicians who had sung there, it was truly a dream come true."
While attending SMC as a college student, Marilyn had sung in and was soloist in a women's trio with fellow students Frances Bumby and Mary Ellen Carden (later Byrd). Marilyn introduced the trio to Fagal and, following an audition, they were also hired to sing for the program as a regular feature during the 1952-1953 schoolyear and through the following summer.
During that year they worked full-time, not only singing but also assisting as secretaries and at the telephone switchboard and performing other duties. Marilyn worked for gifted writer and producer Elaine Giddings and would type the first draft of the weekly script developed by Giddings and Grace Fields.
At her mother's insistence, she enrolled at Washington Missionary College (later Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University) in the fall of 1953, where she continued voice study under William Carey. Shortly after arriving on campus she met Daniel Francis Leigh Cotton, a 1952 theology graduate of Pacific Union College and a recent graduate of and continuing student at the nearby Seventh-day Adventist Seminary in Washington, D.C. (later relocated to Berrien Springs, Michigan, and renamed the Andrews University Theological Seminary). They married in February 1955 and would have four daughters: Patti, Jenni, Beth, and Lori.
Following Daniel's completion of his BD degree at the seminary in 1956, he was hired to pastor the SDA church in Camden, New Jersey. In the summer of 1959 he was ordained, and beginning that fall he started teaching theology at Columbia Union College. While he taught at the college, Marilyn sang as a hired soloist for The Little Country Church, an interdenominational telecast that originated in Richmond, Virginia.
Also, during this time she met George Vandeman and started singing as a soloist for his telecast, It Is Written, which had started in 1956. She would sing as a primary soloist for the telecast for 38 years, most of those during Vandeman's 36-year tenure as speaker.
Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s, both Marilyn and Daniel, a tenor, frequently sang in duets or as soloists at official meetings of church leaders, as well as in evangelistic crusades. In 1959 the Cottons relocated to California, where he taught in the religion department at La Sierra College, now University, and then worked as an administrator in the Loma Linda area, where they would raise their family.
Throughout her career she sang countless times as a featured soloist in church services and concerts, and at regional, national, and international Adventist church conclaves. Although she was known primarily for her singing of sacred music, she also occasionally performed secular music and concerts.
Cotton was a featured artist on the Chapel Record label, releasing her first record, When Tears Hide Tomorrow, in 1964. Additional recordings followed and as their daughters, all talented singers, became older, they joined both Marilyn and Daniel in singing publicly and in a highly praised family album, Christmas with the Cottons, released through the Quiet Hour in both CD and tape formats.
After the Cottons retired, they continued in their ministry, Daniel being associated with Quiet Hour Ministries since 1992 and serving as a member on and chairman of the board of directors for several years and Marilyn performing part time with the QHM overseas teams. In her work with that organization and during her career as a singer she traveled and performed throughout the U.S. as well as in India, Nepal, Hong Kong, China, Romania, Russia, Lithuania, Cuba, and Canada.
During an interview with her in August 2011, she observed:
Gospel music is my great love, for it is true. Nothing can compare with the story it tells - of the soon coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ. I count it the greatest privilege of a lifetime to have been able to promote the coming of our Lord through the medium of music.
The Cottons were living in Loma Linda when Marilyn died on May 20, 2016, at age 82.
Sources: Information provided by Marilyn Cotton, August 2011; Online sources, including www.cottonkin.com; Numerous articles in church magazines, including The Review and Herald, Columbia Union Visitor, Lake Union Herald; Southern Tidings, North Pacific Union Gleaner, Pacific Union Recorder, and others; Paul Wickman, "Behind the Scenes at Faith for Today, A Week at Our Television Headquarters," Review and Herald, 19 February 1953, 16,17; Engagement notice, unknown newspaper; Oddie C. Dillow Obituary, Southern Tidings, 15 August 1962, 22; Record Liners; Bereavement announcement, Pacific Union College, 23 May 2016.
When Tears Hide Tomorrow Marilyn Cotton, Chapel Ensemble, conducted by Ray Casey, Chapel Records, 1964 ST-138
If God Marilyn Cotton with daughters and Chapel Orchestra conducted by Ray Casey, Chapel Records, 1972 SS-178
Reach Out and Touch Marilyn Cotton, Chapel Records, 1973, S-5227, orchestrated, arranged, and produced by Fred Bock
Christmas with Marilyn Marilyn Cotton, Chapel Records
It is Written Favorites Marilyn Cotton, Chapel Records 1981
He Gives Me Songs in the Night Marilyn Cotton, Available through the Quiet Hour
Christmas with the Cottons Marilyn with four daughters and husband, Daniel, a tenor, Available through the Quiet Hour in both CD and tape formats
Songs for His People Marilyn Cotton and other singers featured on SDA Television programs, Adventist Media Center