Read: Milt Okun’s Music-Biz Memoir

 

Along the Cherry
Lane,
published recently by Classical Music Today/Hal Leonard, serves up a
much-needed remedy to the typical, clichéd, music industry
crash-and-burn/resurrection tales. Steven Tyler fans need not apply.

 

By Fred Mills

Music-biz memoirs are, almost by definition, notoriously
self-serving, to the point where nobody even bothers to call ‘em
autobiographies anymore. Part of this is due to the fact that most of today’s
memoirs are culled from the ranks of the rock generation, whose alcohol- and
chemical-tainted recollections don’t make for the most credible witnesses to history,
personal or otherwise; the term “memoir” connotes a highly subjective rendering
of persons, places and events, although why on earth we’ve elevated such accountings
to a the status of literary genre is beyond me. As entertaining as, say,
Stephen Tyler’s recent foray into the field may have been, books like Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? don’t really contribute to the culture anymore than the latest chick-lit or
romance novel. (Keith Richards’ Life may be the exception that proves the rule – or Al Kooper’s riotously funny Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards.)
If I had a buck for every crummy musical post-rehab/12-step
confessional-cum-apologia that I’ve started and tossed away in disgust over the
past decade or so, I’d be one rich reviewer.

 

Legendary producer Milton
“Milt” Okun’s Along the Cherry Lane is a music-biz memoir, and it’s everything that the above paragraph’s
assertions are not. Yes, Okun is relating his long career from his own perspective
and drawing from his own memories; it’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. Yet
AtCL, by virtue of both its structure
and the temperament of its subject, is markedly different from most memoirs.

 

First of all, the book is designed to read like an expanded
interview session between Okun and co-author Richard Sparks (a playwright,
lyricist and producer of some note), with elements of oral history woven in via
additional quotes from Okun associates and his wife and occasional brief
narrative segues. This gives the material undeniable journalistic heft that a
straight first-person memoir necessarily lacks; for while the reader is
certainly aware that any interviewee can lie through his or her teeth, one is
simply more disinclined to discount a story if has been theoretically vetted
via the interview process. Plus, the presence of other individuals’ quotes,
though no doubt collected and edited selectively, serves to verify or expand
upon Okun’s recollections, which are already quite clear-headed in and of themselves.

 

Hold that last thought: the most important thing that AtCL has going for it is the fact that
Milt Okun comes across as one of the few nice guys – and reliable witnesses to
boot – left in the music business. Maybe one of the only nice guys at that, for respondent after respondent here is
quick to point out how fair and above-board Okun was in his dealings with
everyone. When was the last time you read about an old-school industry lifer
(Okun will turn 90 in December) whose primary occupation was not ripping off naïve artists?

 

 

A classically-trained pianist, Okun got his start in the
late ‘50s and early ‘60s as the folk boom was unfolding, recording several
albums before moving full-time into arranging and producing, and along the way
he founded the very successful music publishing company Cherry Lane, hence the
book’s title. Some of his star protégés and success stories you may have heard
of: Peter Paul and Mary, the Chad Mitchell Trio, John Denver, Placido Domingo,
Laura Nyro (who Okun regards, in a chapter titled “Ones That Got Away,” as one
of his “failures,” but whose career clearly benefited from the assistance he
provided on several of her early classics-in-waiting). And while he reflects on
his work with those artists with fondness and pride – there’s no question that
his feelings for the late Denver are as paternal as they are professional – he
doesn’t set out to whitewash anything either. The section on PP&M goes into
great detail about how difficult it was to tighten the group up as harmony
vocalists, noting that first time he heard them, at the behest of their manager
Albert Grossman, he “figured they could never possibly make it. They were
terrible.” (Wife Rosemary Okun confirms this.) And while the book doesn’t
necessarily set out to settle scores for Okun, his opinion of individuals whose
dealings with him were less than positive are clearly, if tactfully, expressed;
Harry Belafonte, an early Okun employer, doesn’t come across as particularly
likable, while the underhanded treatment he was given by folksinger/actor Theo
Bikel is outlined – through Rosemary Okun’s remembrance – in great detail.

 

It’s to the credit of Okun that he brings humanity and
personality even to the more business-like sections of his biz tale. Okun
didn’t work directly with Bob Dylan, although he did have ongoing dealings with
Dylan manager Grossman, and he recalls an incident in which he was almost
sucked into a financial scheme with Grossman that Dylan later had to sue over. There’s
also a fascinating behind-the-scenes quality to the story about bringing star
client Denver together with opera legend Domingo, and how their unexpected
duet, “Perhaps Love,” became a massive radio hit despite the intransigence of
record company execs and even Denver’s manager Jerry Weintraub.

 

In any event, music and entertainment industry memoirs are
what they are, so your interest in Okun’s may be dictated by your interest in
the personalities that he intersected with. Okun never crashed and burned,
never holed up in a seedy motel room with a coked-up groupie, never abandoned
his wife and young child for the vagabond life only to have deep lingering
regrets much later in life, so Along the
Cherry Lane
isn’t aimed at readers who thought Steven Tyler’s memoir made
for great literature. Perhaps, though, it’s time to resurrect the notion of “autobiography”
and put it back into usage. This delightful, revealing volume doesn’t deserve
to be tarnished by that other term.

 

[Photo Credit: Sensei48 / via Wikimedia Commons]

 

 

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