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Doty, former violin prodigy, dies at 80

The Union StaffMarilyn Doty-Sorci, known to many simply as Marilyn Doty, was known as a versatile musician.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

She played before President Franklin Roosevelt and celebrated her 75th birthday in Grass Valley’s Memorial Park.

Marilyn Doty-Sorci, a Grass Valley harpist and fiddler by way of San Francisco, died Wednesday, Sept. 11. She was 80.

A celebration of life is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Grass Valley. Burial will follow at the church cemetery.



Those who knew Doty are invited to a picnic, barbecue and celebration of her life at Memorial Park after 4 p.m. Tuesday. Her daughter, Mary Ellen Sorci, asked those who attend to bring an instrument.

“What we’re looking for are stories and her music,” Sorci said. “Any recorded music of hers they might have we would like to have, so we can distribute her music.”




Doty is survived by her daughters, Sorci and Lynn Chapman of Grass Valley; grandchildren Carissa and Christopher Chapman; great-grandson, Caden; and long-time companion Russell Pahner.

Those who knew Doty describe her as an accomplished, versatile musician, equally at home playing classical violin or reggae. Known in musical circles as Marilyn Doty, local musicians describe her as a music scene unto herself.

“The nights she played at Cowboy Pizza were always electric, especially when she got in ‘duels’ with other musicians,” Wally Hagaman, former owner of Cowboy Pizza, said about Doty. “She was an incredible violinist and fiddle player.”

Doty was a child prodigy in classical music, giving her first performance at the San Francisco Opera House when she was five years old. A serious illness forced her to give up playing, but when she returned to music over 30 years later, she took up playing country music.

“She was an incredible musician who participated in the music scene here in Nevada County,” said Wally Hagaman, owner of the former Cowboy Pizza who used to feature area musicians there.

“She was my pal and my music partner for 14 years,” said Celtic harpist Lisa Stine. “I will really, truly miss her. She was a great lady.”

Even though she was 80, Doty was very youthful and very young at heart, Stine said.

“She came alive in front of an audience. She loved to perform,” Stine said about the woman with whom she performed at hundreds of events over the last 15 years around Northern California. Stine said.

“She’s on many people’s CDs,” Stine said. “She was remarkable.”

Some of the many musicians she played with are Michael Simms, Kelly Fleming, Loren Miller, Brad Evans and the Fruit Jar Pickers of Rough & Ready.

“She played with everybody,” Sorci said. “She probably played with everybody in town at one time or another.”

She also taught violin to many, including Chris Dabis, Nevada County Treasurer.

A fourth-generation Californian born in San Francisco in 1922, Doty was raised around the San Francisco music scene. Her grandfather, Con Keefee, was a well-known Bay Area fiddler who lost all of his musical instruments in the 1906 earthquake.

She started playing violin at the age of five when she debuted at the San Francisco opera House.

“It was a fire I could never put out,” Doty said in a 1999 interview with The Union.

As late as 1999 she had her first full-sized instrument, purchased in 1938. She went to New York to study, first under Michael Piastro, the New York Philharmonic concert master, and then at David Mannes’ School of Music on East 73rd Avenue. One of her sponsors was William Jennings Bryan’s daughter, whom she met at her 1935 debut performance in Copenhagen.

During World War II, Doty was sponsored by the U.S. government as an ambassador to Norwegian royalty, her daughter said. She also was a regular performer with CBS radio at the old Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

A severe illness curtailed her playing in 1943, and she didn’t play for more than 30 years.

Doty was a graduate of Notre Dame College in Belmont, Calif., and also attended the University of Pittsburgh.

She moved to Grass Valley with her mother, Ruth Aitken Doty, in 1973.

Her daughter, Mary Ellen Sorci, opened Foggy Mountain Music store in Grass Valley. Doty opened a coffeehouse two doors up the street called The Cat and the Fiddle. She loved participating in Nevada City’s Joe Cain Day parade, her daughter said.

Her last performance was June 8, when she played at her daughter Mary Ellen’s wedding to Doug Hake.

“She was quite the woman,” Sorci said. “She had a lot of loving people around her.”


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