For many years a fellow named Milt Okun has subscribed to my Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter. And I have been privileged to befriend him and wife Rosemary as we often meet at performances of the L.A. Opera, where he is on the Board. I collect the stunning architectural photographs of daughter Jenny, who has contributed to the Getty Museum via its poster, has a photo currently at the Autry Museum Space Exhibit, and is world-renowned for her unusual work. (Her triptych photograph of the Venice canals graces the wall of my living room.) Milt's son-in-law, Richard Sparks, is a well-respected British writer and lyricist, and wrote a wonderful (never-filmed) screenplay for me based upon a real-life incident: when the Rolling Stones rented a New England girls school for a summer to record an album, and their unexpected interaction with the local community.
But I never realized how intimately my life was intertwined with Milt Okun's until this week, when I attended a book-signing for the new memoir of his life, Along the Cherry Lane, the story of his life as told to his son-in-law, Richard Sparks. Reading it in one gulp this weekend, I discovered that Milt had been the (often uncredited) producer of most of the musical albums of Peter, Paul & Mary. And my mind flashed back to a time in the mid-fifties when I was the publicist for the Newport Jazz Festival, working with a talent manager named Albert Grossman. One afternoon Al brought three young people, two guys and a gal, to my Central Park West office, saying that he had heard the trio singing the previous night at a Greenwich Village nightclub and wanted our opinion. (Also present was George Wein, founder of the jazz festival.) Thus was born Peter, Paul & Mary... and I became their first publicist. Not until reading this book, however, did I realize that it took Milt many, many months of working with the unskilled singers to weld them into the cohesive trio which then went on to international success (ie. "Puff The Magic Dragon" time.)
The book chronicles Okun's life from his music school teaching days to singing and writing folk songs to working with some of the biggest names in music, from conducting and producing (usually uncredited) Harry Belafonte, to being the most important music influence in John Denver's life, to taking Placido Domingo from the opera world into the popular sphere. (Remember the album, Perhaps Love, a huge hit? Milt tells why it was never released as a single, due to the shortsightedness of an RCA exec.) At the time he was conducting Belafonte in concert, I recall bringing his PR man, Mike Merrick, a novel by John Ball which I had optioned for just six weeks called In the Heat of the Night, for Harry to star in the film. He never got around to reading it and it ended up in Sidney Poitier's lap, thanks to me. Placido has backed various Spanish restaurants in New York over the years, and I have always tried to help him publicize them.
Cherry Lane is the name of Milt's music publishing company, an icon in that world for treating its writers and performers with grace and honesty, which may explain why they publish the Beatles, Presley and all of Dreamwork's music, as well as the entire Denver catalogue. An upcoming special on PBS profiles Milt Okun Quincy Jones and George Martin (Beatles) as three of the most influential music producers in history. As the book recounts, from The Weavers to will.i.am to the Black Eyed Peas, he has been a central figure in the continuing story of our musical heritage. I was astonished to learn of this career ranging from the folk revival to today's new 21st century technological landscape (which is deserving of a separate Huffington Post piece of its own.) I was engrossed in the stories Milt tells in the tome, from his encounters with Elvis Presley to television network titans to the Muppets. Particularly relevant to me were his current efforts to bring opera to the young, underprivileged children of Los Angeles, inviting school classes to attend many of the rehearsals and performances. Music education is getting short shrift these days, and he is fighting to overcome this. More power to Milt Okun.
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