December 12, 2018

Milt Okun’s wild ride

A few years ago, Rosemary Okun, wife of veteran music producer, arranger and singer Milt Okun, had an inspired idea: take a who’s who lineup from the opera world and pair the performers with John Denver compositions.

In some ways, it made perfect sense. Not only did her husband of 55 years work with and discover Denver, but he did the same for celebrated tenor Plácido Domingo.

Due late this year, “Great Voices Sing John Denver” will be an album of 13 opera singers covering some of the singer/songwriter’s most cherished chestnuts, including “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

“We tried a dozen songs from the best opera singers,” Milt Okun told the Journal. “We approached them by sending a CD and John’s songbook, and they each picked a favorite song and we recorded.”

One of those songs will be “Perhaps Love,” a hit for Domingo and Denver as a duo 25 years ago.

“‘Perhaps Love’ launched [Domingo] as a crossover artist,” said Richard Sparks, Okun’s son-in-law, who helped him write his 2011 memoir, “Along the Cherry Lane.”

On “Voices” — recorded by Okun and composer Lee Holdridge over a six-month period in New York, Los Angeles, London and Munich — the opera star will be singing the song with his son, Okun said.

Overall, he continued, “It was very exciting to hear these great, great voices from the world of opera sing these beautiful songs. It turned out to be very appropriate because the songs can take voices. Each one is different, very special.”

Okun, 89, with his signature thick black frames, mentored numerous successful acts throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, breaking folk, opera and country acts. His publishing house, Cherry Lane Music, handled Elvis Presley, and he was instrumental in the recording careers of Peter, Paul and Mary; Odetta; even Mr. Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum) from “Captain Kangaroo.”

The Beverly Hills resident’s parents were Jewish first cousins who originally hailed from a town 40 miles from Chernobyl. Left-wing political activists who lived into their 90s, the pair moved to Brooklyn and came to own the Adirondacks resort Schroon Crest, where Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Weavers performed. They socialized with Arthur Miller (Okun’s father turned down investing in “Death of a Salesman”) and photographer Milton Greene.

Secularly raised, Okun said, “I believe in music and art.” Yet Okun repeatedly recorded with Shlomo Carlebach — known as “The Singing Rabbi.”
Growing up, Okun had hoped to be a concert pianist, but these plans were derailed when he came down with arthritis at age 14.

“The only cure was go to bed. I went to bed for two years. When I woke up, I couldn’t play,” he said. “I was disappointed. I had no clue for a while what I was going to do. So I became a teacher.”

Eventually, Okun said, “Harry Belafonte hired me to play in his group. I could play pop music.”

As his career progressed, it wasn’t unusual for Okun to bring his work home.

“All these groups used to sing in the living room,” Okun’s daughter, Jenny Okun, remembered. “I used to fall asleep to Peter, Paul and Mary.”

At the dawn of the 1970s, some serious syzygy occurred for Okun. His book of arrangements, “Great Songs of the Sixties,” sold 1.1 million copies and included choice Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel selections.

Bob Flick of the Brothers Four had told Okun about Denver after catching him at Pasadena’s Ice House, then a folk music club. When Chad Mitchell quit his eponymous Chad Mitchell Trio, Okun had Denver replace him.

When folk music started evaporating, Okun relocated from New York to England to start over — until “John exploded. I came back.”

Soon, Denver pursued a solo career. Many rejected the talented New Mexican, but Okun negotiated a $20,000 advance on a four-album contract with an enthusiastic RCA exec, according to Okun. Several smash hits later, Denver became a successful singer and movie star.

“He had a new offer from one of the subsidiaries of RCA,” Okun said. “He had been [negotiating] himself and making a mess of it. I arranged for him to meet music attorney David Braun. He finally agreed.”

Denver died at 53 on Oct. 12, 1997, when his experimental single-engine plane crashed near Pacific Grove, Calif.

Okun last saw him three days prior, when Denver played a West Valley gig.

Okun strongly rejects post-crash insinuations that divorce had tail-spun Denver into a suicidal depression. No drugs or alcohol appeared in Denver’s autopsy. Things were looking up, he said.

These days, the Okun family is not exactly taking trips down Cherry Lane. As Milt finalizes distribution on “Voices,” his wife is self-publishing “An Imperfect Life: Poems and Drawings.”

Okun’s daughter and her husband, Sparks, are readying “Dulce Rosa,” an opera based on Isabel Allende’s short story “Una Venganza” (“An Act of Vengeance”). Sparks will write/direct the Broad Stage/L.A. Opera co-production, with music by Holdridge and with Domingo conducting. Jenny Okun did the set design, and 300 rear projections are based on her footage shot in Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Mexico. “Dulce Rosa” will premiere May 17.

As for Milt Okun, there’s no golf or shuffleboard. After years of hard work, this octogenarian enjoys resting on his hard-earned laurels.

“I do a lot of reading, watching TV,” he said, smiling. “I do what I please.”