Obituary for Pearl Elizabeth Cotnoir
Pearl Coté Cotnoir (27 March 1927 - 11 January 2017)
Widely recognized in her community as a singer and long time resident of Norwich, Connecticut, Pearl was born Marie Thérèse Pearl Coté on 27 March,1927 in Warwick, Rhode Island to Edouard Coté of Québec and Georgiana Aurore Blais, age 22, of Sprague, CT. She was baptized Pearl Elizabeth Coté at the Church of St. John the Baptist in West Warwick parish. Her parents, with whom she remained close their entire lives, labored at Ponemah Mills and the family partied in patois with friends and music. Accompanying themselves, Pearl and her younger sister Lorraine became known outside the close family circle as the Coté Sisters.
Theirs were two beautifully matched voices, accompanied by Lorraine’s guitar and Pearl’s mandolin. Wire recordings and photographs document their harmonies for the musical country act they brought to an audition for the Arthur Godfrey radio show in New York in 1943. Every day after high school the girls would make their way by bus to visit the Uncas on Thames Sanatorium in Norwich and sing for their mother and other patients quarantined for treatment of tuberculosis. Aurore’s surgery and care there, supported by family music from the foyer or front lawn depending on the weather, was such that Aurore, known as Memé to the family, lived to one hundred and one years of age.
Pearl graduated from the Norwich Free Academy in 1944 doing wartime work behind a Norwich soda counter populated by sailors and soldiers. In 1946 she met and married Roger Cotnoir, who had returned stateside as a highly decorated veteran of the battle of the Arno.
During the war years of 1942-43, the Coté Sisters travelled to Providence, Rhode Island once a week to perform on radio station WJAR. The Coté Sisters’ first band with backup musicians outside the family seems to have been the Plainsmen. Pearl’s faultless pitch and timing as well as her command of lyrics and lively repartee, were to find expression with a whole series of the region’s exacting musicians. Pearl took special pleasure in singing in snappy coordination with well-practiced multi-instrumental groups. In 1949, the sisters formed a country and western band which performed weekly on the Norwich radio station WICH. They appeared throughout eastern Connecticut at various lounges. In 1949, Pearl also joined the Paul Szehner band, performing weekends at the Norwich Inn and broadcasting live on WICH on Saturday evenings. She continued with Paul on Cordovox, Artie Jarvis on bass and many other instruments, Bob Ahern as percussionist and Jake Jacobi on sax. The band released one LP recording in 1965 under Paul Szehner.
Daughter Elaine Antoinette was born in 1947 and Kathryn Lynn in 1952. Despite having contracted polio in 1950, Pearl rebounded and remained physically active - as a performer on stage and athletically as a golfer and bowler for Electric Boat Leagues. She also bowled for the Monday Night Household League. Pearl and Roger divorced in 1956.
With Memé and Pépé seeing to the girls on Spring Street in Norwich, Pearl started working in 1955 at Groton Long Point. Initially a file clerk/typist, she became a highly efficient executive secretary for the General Dynamics Division of Electric Boat as the sole female in the section. Assigned to the UK Project in New London, she worked with an international team of engineers on design revisions for the Cold War nuclear submarine fleet. Stepping to the microphone to perform a request at a friend’s wedding, Pearl was heard by Paul Szehner and immediately asked to front his band. The center of her life remained her weekends as a chanteuse: for weddings, celebrations and regularly for the Norwich Inn and later at the Lighthouse Inn in New London until it was heavily damaged by fire in 1979.
Paul Szehner’s band was eventually taken over by Walter Piascik and became known as the Wally Sands Band until Wally’s death in 1988. Pearl also continued working weekends with her own group, Tuxedo Junction, with various pianists, including Nick Petrizzi, Tommy Pavone, Dick Capalbo. She was the female vocalist for The Coastline Swingband, a sixteen-piece big band under the direction of Hank Burr of Rhode Island. She also continued to perform in four-piece groups of local musicians. These bands, with their girl-singer Pearl, became familiar figures to the many faithful who regularly dined and danced in New London. She developed a vast repertoire of ballads and jazz standards and was instantly at home on the bandstand with any professional group.
Pearl’s friends were mostly musicians and afficionados. Her red hair, glittering costume jewelry and unfailingly stylish presentations in heels, pearls and sequins all complemented her extroverted stage personality. She became a well-known torch singer in the area. On stage she was usually surrounded by a coterie of male accompanists. In other venues she played the vibraphone and mandolin. It made her day, in later years, when people she might not know would recognize her and compliment her on her musicality, voice and stage presence. She also sang Gilbert and Sullivan in the chorus for Waterford Community Theater productions. Pearl and Lorraine sang for thirty years in the church choir at Saint Catherine’s of Siena Parish in Preston.
After retiring from EB in 1992, Pearl continued to present her repertoire to its most natural audience. Welcomed by her mother’s friends at the convalescent home in Groton, Pearl began to present regularly at convalescent centers in Griswold, Groton, Atria, Norwichtown, Uncasville and Norwich - accompanied by Brian Holloway. At eighty-four years of age she stood center floor home court in Uncasville and belted the National Anthem to start the Connecticut Suns’ 2011 Labor Day WNBA game.
Fiercely independent as mother, performer, secretary and athlete, Pearl was also a Patriots and Red-Sox fan. She enjoyed a drink or two and was famously lucky for her own entertainment at both Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun. Pearl is survived by her daughters Elaine Camillucci of Norwich, CT and Kathryn Cotnoir of Aberdeen, WA, sister Lorraine Charron, nephews, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a great-great-granddaughter. She passed away at home in the loving care of Hospice, family and close friends.
Interment will take place in a private family ceremony on 16 January in Norwich, CT. The memorial service/celebration of life will be at 11:00 am on Pearl’s 90th birthday, March 27th at Saint Catherine of Siena Church in Preston, CT. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Pearl Coté Cotnoir Music Scholarship fund at the Norwich Free Academy, NFA Foundation Inc., 321 Broadway, Norwich, CT 06360