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In Memoriam: Milton Okun, Renowned Music Producer

Milton Okun, one of the most influential music producers and impresarios of the 20th century, passed away on November 15. Mr. Okun’s wife, Rosemary, studied art at The Cooper Union, and is a poet and artist. The two donated generously to the school and are members of the Peter Cooper Heritage Society.

Mr. Okun produced the likes of John Denver, Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Chad Mitchell Trio. He was behind some of the best known songs of the 1960s and ‘70s including “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Rocky Mountain High” and “Afternoon Delight.” In the 1980s, he transformed the career of Plácido Domingo, making the great Spanish tenor a renowned figure in the pop music world, expanding his audience well beyond opera lovers. Mr. Okun was also a noted arranger, composer and musicologist, and the author of The New York Times Great Songs of the Sixties (1970) and The New York Times Great Songs of Lennon & McCartney (1973). Over the course of his career, he garnered 75 gold and platinum records and 16 Grammy nominations.

As the founder of Cherry Lane Music Group, he created one of the world’s largest independent publishing companies; it held the rights to work by such artists as Ashford & Simpson, John Legend and the White Stripes. In addition to pop music, Mr. Okun presciently bought the rights to music for advertisements, films and video games, including the Pokemon soundtrack. The company was sold to BMG in 2010 for a sizable amount.

Mr. Okun was born in 1923 in Brooklyn; his father, William Okun graduated from Cooper in 1916 with a BSE and his brother, Daniel, earned a degree in civil engineering in 1937. During summers, Mr. Okun’s parents ran a hotel in the Adirondacks where performers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Singer would play. When he was 14 years old, Mr. Okun, who had hopes of being a classical pianist, was felled by severe kidney inflammation that after a two-year recovery, left his fingers too weak for the demands of a classical career. Instead he attended New York University to study music education, and Oberlin, where he earned a masters degree in music. He taught junior high school in New York City for years until landing a gig as Harry Belafonte’s pianist and later bandleader. But, according to Mr. Okun, the famed calypso singer and civil rights activist fired him after a row about the tempo of “Hava Negila.”

At that point, Mr. Okun became deeply involved in the folk music scene in Greenwich Village as a performer and composer, shaping the careers of many of its most renowned players including Tom Paxton and Laura Nyro. When an acquaintance gave him a demo recording of a song called “Babe, I Hate to Go,” he wrote an arrangement of it for Peter, Paul and Mary. The song, written by John Denver, became the hit song, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Mr. Okun, who once said that his business was popular music but his heart was classical, was drawn to Mr. Denver’s crystalline voice and worked tirelessly promoting the young folk singer, who became one of the most successful musicians of the 1970s. In 1981, Mr. Okun paired him with Plácido Domingo for “Perhaps Love,” a hit record that led to a trend of opera stars as pop sensations. On Facebook, Mr. Domingo described Mr. Okun as “the man with great vision that firmly believed in me and gave me my breakthrough role in the world of pop music….I thank you dearly, Milt.”

Milton and Rosemary Primont Okun established three funds at The Cooper Union: The William H. Okun Endowed Scholarship Fund, which provides financial assistance for students in the schools of engineering, art and architecture; Rosemary Okun Endowed Scholarship Fund, which provides financial assistance for students in the School of Art; and the Faculty Development Fund, which is used by all three schools and the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences to help Cooper recruit, support and maintain outstanding faculty members. According to the Albert Nerken School of Engineering’s acting dean, Richard Stock, faculty has benefitted greatly from this last gift. “Opportunities that would have normally been out of the question for our faculty to attend and carry the Cooper Union flag were now possible. Our faculty presented on their work and were able to wow audiences from Europe to Taiwan,” he said. “The Okuns’ support and interest in The Cooper Union will always be remembered and appreciated.”