Obituaries

Star maker Milt Okun, who brought John Denver and Placido Domingo together, dies at 92

Milt Okun
Milt Okun, founder of Cherry Lane Music Group, reflected in the framed CDs of John Denver, one of the many recording artists he shaped.
(Kevin P. Casey/Los Angeles Times)

Milt Okun, a classically trained producer and arranger who found success with folk artists like Peter, Paul and Mary and mainstream hits with John Denver, has died at his home in Beverly Hills at the age of 92.

Okun was nominated for dozens of Grammy awards, boosted the careers of artists dating back to Harry Belafonte and founded Cherry Lane Music Publishing, one of the largest independent music houses in the industry.

But Okun, reflecting on his career late in life, said he’d always preferred opera and regarded pop music as hard work. “My heart was always in opera,” Okun told music website Artist House Music in 2011.

He successfully merged both when he brought together Denver — with his gee-whiz demeanor and not-quite-country style of singing — and Placido Domingo, an emerging star of the opera whom Okun viewed as possibly the best and strongest voice of the 20th century.

John Denver at the Inglewood Forum in 1978.
John Denver at the Inglewood Forum in 1978.
(Los Angeles Times )

“I’d tailed Domingo for five years,” Okun said of his long-running effort to bring the two together. “I’m sure he thought I was an overage groupie.”

To get the opera singer’s attention, Okun said he finally resorted to writing Domingo a letter, including his resume and his game plan. Domingo consented.

Regarded by some as a strange musical mashup, the duet the two recorded became the title song on Domingo’s best-selling “Perhaps Love” album. It also opened the door for other crossover successes – the Three Tenors, Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli.

“In a strange way, matching that great operatic [singer] with the beautiful, crystalline folk voice gave birth to that whole era,” composer Lee Holdridge told Billboard magazine in 2008.

Okun’s daughter, photographer Jennifer Okun Sparks, said the blending of musical disciplines was a game-changer for the classical industry in particular and marked the first time an opera singer was paid up front and offered pop-music-size wages, something she said her father insisted on.

After Denver’s death, Okun reached out to Domingo and his contemporaries again, asking each to select a Denver song to record. He compiled them in a single album: “Great Voices Sing John Denver.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1923, Okun was trained as a pianist and was headed for a career as a junior high school music teacher and sometimes-dabbler in folk music when he started working with Belafonte, first as a piano player and eventually as the calypso star’s bandleader.

And then, one day, he was fired.

“Probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” Okun told Artist House Music. “I was very lucky to have been fired.”

Lucky because he was swept back to folk music and quickly became a touchstone for artists like Tom Paxton, Laura Nyro, Odetta and Peter Paul and Mary, who rewarded him with hits like ‘Puff (The Magic Dragon),” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and Bob Dylan’s protest anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962.
Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962.
(Warner Brothers Studio )

In Denver, the going was tougher. Okun saw a raw Americana talent, but the folk scene was fading and labels were largely uninterested.

Denver finally signed with RCA but it took years before Okun helped Denver break through with “Take Me Home Country Roads.” A string of hits – “Sunshine on my Shoulder,” “Annie’s Song,” “Rocky Mountain High” — followed.

Cherry Lane Music, named for a small Greenwich Village theater below the apartment where Okun was living in the early ’60s, was a pioneer in the music publishing business, finding niches overlooked by others.

While larger firms focused on what people might listen to on the radio, Cherry Lane —  a repository for Denver’s easy-listening catalog and the musical works of dozens of others— expanded its reach by tuning into what people listened to at football games, during NASCAR telecasts and on cartoon soundtracks such as “Pokemon,” which sold roughly 4 million copies when a set of albums was released.

Cherry Lane was sold to BMG Rights Management in 2010.

Okun, who died Nov. 15, and a son-in-law chronicled the producer’s career in the music industry in the memoir “Along the Cherry Lane.” Okun and his wife were longtime supporters of the Los Angeles Opera.

Sparks recalled that as a child, her bedroom was right off off the living room, where her father and mother would often gather with musicians.

“I would listen to music all night,” she said,

Okun is survived by his wife Rosemary, daughter Jennifer, son Andrew, and three grandchildren.

steve.marble@latimes.com

Twitter: @stephenmarble