From Dion to Dylan to McCartney to Sinatra's producer and arranger, Rankin was admired by them all.
It’s not surprising more of a fuss wasn’t made about Kenny Rankin’s death last year. The 69-year-old lung cancer victim never had a big hit record. His best selling work, The Kenny Rankin Album, barely creased the bottom of the Billboard Top 100 at #99 in 1976. However, Rankin did have a long and illustrious career, and other musicians certainly knew his work. Rankin was one of those names whispered in awe by artists who wondered if a guy with that much talent never made it, how are they expected to succeed? Six of Rankin’s best albums, originally recorded between 1967 and 1976, have recently been reissued by Sly Dog records.
The New York City boy was a friend of Dion Dimucci in the '50s, and while Rankin’s doo wop pop (e.g., "Cindy Lou, My Cinderella" and "Sure as You're Born") never cracked the charts, they brought Rankin’s work to the attention of producers at Columbia Records. During the mid-'60s, Rankin penned songs for pop-jazz artists like Carmen McRae ("My Carousel"), Peggy Lee ("In the Name of Love"), and Mel Tormé ("Haven't We Met"). He also played session work for other Columbia Records artists. That’s him playing acoustic guitar on “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Maggie’s Farm”, and other tracks on Bob Dylan’s breakthrough disc Bringing It All Back Home.
Rankin did not release his first album, Mind Dusters, until 1967. It’s a beautiful, understated masterpiece; sophisticated and quiet without being sappy. Rankin's fingers dance along the nylon strings with precision, without ever being fussy. He sings with clarity, yet never over articulates. For example, Rankin covers Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter Night”. The gentlemanly Canadian is known for the attention he gives to his own lyrics, but the New York native pronounces every word so that ones that Lightfoot may have slurred over in his desire to enrich them emotionally (e.g., “If I was dying now”) are now able to be understood. And Rankin does this without sacrificing an iota of feeling. Rankin also intimately covers other now classic songs from the era, such as Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man" and Fred Neil’s “The Dolphin”, and offers heart wrenching versions of Fred Hellerman’s anti-war anthem “Come Away Melinda” and Eric Eisner‘s “The Girl I Left Behind”.
As fine as Rankin’s interpretations are, the other half-dozen self-penned tunes (some co-authored with his wife Yvonne) are even more striking. Of particular note are the pop-psychedelic “Cotton Candy Sandman” and “My Carousel”, which incorporate cinematic images mixed with Brazilian tempos and Americana orchestrations. One of Rankin’s best known compositions can also be found on Mind Dusters, the ecstatic “Peaceful”, which went on to become a hit single in England for Georgie Fame in 1969 and in America for Helen Reddy in 1973.
While Mind Dusters garnered positive reviews, it made little impact on the public at the time of its release. The year 1967 was the beginning of the Summer of Love, the year of hot soul like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and libidinal rock like the Doors' “Light My Fire”. The Sound of Young America from Motown to the Monkees ruled the charts, and youthful desires ruled the popular culture. Rankin, a child of the '50s, was making adult music. The album’s liner notes were even written by that grown-up master of late night television, Johnny Carson.
The perception of Rankin as an adult artist in the midst of the nation’s youth mania was further confirmed by his next album, Family (1970), which featured a cover photo of Papa Rankin holding his two young daughters in his arms. This disc consists of Rankin singing and playing other people’s songs, with the exception of a short instrumental piece (“Family Theme”) and a lovely samba entitled “Soft Guitar”. Rankin’s selections show a diversity of taste and a cultured perspective. He does acoustic versions of Brill Building pop (“Up on the Roof”), classic country (Hank Williams’s “Heart of Gold”), the Beatles’ (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Dear Prudence”), soul (“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”), English folk (Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death”), and American folk (Stephen Stills’s “Four Days Gone”). While these songs may seem dissimilar, they do share one thing in common -- great instrumental licks, whether it’s George Harrison on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, or Steve Cropper on “Dock of the Bay”, or guitar impresarios like Jansch and Stills.
Rankin’s interpretations of these songs have more to do with jazz than rock. Think of someone like Wes Montgomery, but with a voice of an angel. While Family yielded no hits, Rankin’s covers were well regarded by many critics at the time.
Rankin’s next album, Like a Seed, takes the opposite tack and is comprised of all original material by Rankin (with several co-written with his wife Yvonne). He had recently come out of rehab for addiction to speed. The album is autobiographical and dedicated to “the sisters and brothers of Phoenix House.” He redoes “Peaceful”, but in a more somber way this time. The original began with a sitar intro and trippy accompaniment. The new version relies on more sedate, even “peaceful” backup instrumentation.
The songs document Rankin’s struggles, especially on tunes like “Comin’ Down” and “Bad Times Make You Strong”, but he’s never preachy. If anything, he’s angry at himself. Rankin’s backed by stellar session players, including Jim Horn on saxophone and flute, Lee Sklar on bass, Larry Knechtel on keyboards, and Gale Levant on harp, but the best songs seem the most uncluttered, such as the song about the joy of making music, “Stringman”, and the spiritual “If I Should Go to Pray”.
During 1975 Rankin recorded two records, which both showed he was back in top form. First came Inside that showed the man’s playful side. He takes on Steve Wonder’s deliciously funky “Creepin’” and turns the song into a creepy love song where the haunter of dreams may just be a stalker, and turns Jimi Hendrix’s “Up from the Skies”, sung from the perspective of an alien, into a more down to earth condemnation of the heartlessness of contemporary society. On a more romantic note, he turns the sad despair of Randy Newman’s “Marie” into a declaration of love, Louie Prima’s “Sunday Kind of Love” into a paean to love that lasts, and offers a solo version of John B. Sebastian’s “She’s a Lady” in sweet tribute to the mystery of love. The only misstep on the disc may be the self penned title tune (again co-authored with his wife) that contains a clunky spoken word ode to the reality of love.
Silver Morning has Rankin going back to recording a disc with half original tunes and half cover versions. All of the songs are upbeat and concern themes of love, freedom, and even redemption. He covers the usual suspects, including the Beatles (“Blackbird”, “Penny Lane”) and Gordon Lightfoot (“Pussywillows, Cattails”), and incorporates more Brazilian music into his repertoire, on both self-penned cuts like “In the Name of Love” and by actual Brazilian composers, such as Vinicius DeMoraes’ “Birembau”. The original tunes also have much to offer. The title track and “Haven’t We Met” are not only good songs, but feature Rankin’s nimbleness with the strings, and show that he’s able to deftly use his voice on heavily rhythmic material.
It should be noted that Paul McCartney was so impressed by Rankin’s rendition of “Blackbird” from this album that the Beatle asked Rankin to represent McCartney and Lennon at the induction ceremony at the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The last of the six reissues, The Kenny Rankin Album (1976) features Rankin working with a 60-piece orchestra and Frank Sinatra's producer and arranger, Don Costa. Rankin redoes some songs from the past, including “House of Gold" and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps“. Costa has the good sense to let these tunes breathe before the string sections start to overwhelm Rankin’s performance. This material works best as personal testimony. While it makes a certain amount of sense to let the music swell at certain points because the performer has discovered something bigger than himself, Rankin is talented enough to pull these songs off with just his voice and a guitar.
Some of the other covers veer close to mushy soft rock, especially Stephen Bishop’s “On and On” and Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful”. There also are a few unexpected gems. Rankin shines on the emotional weather reports, “Here’s That Rainy Day”, best known as a Sinatra tune, and Johnny Mathis’s “When Sunny Gets Blue”. The truth is, Rankin is much better as a jazz singer than a rocker, and Costa does best when he lets this happen.
Rankin continued to record during the decades that followed, and indeed produced much more of value, but these six albums reveal the heart of his artistry. Sly Dog has done a marvelous job of pristinely reproducing the discs. The last four albums were digitally remastered from the original tapes, but even the first two sound terrific. The music here proves that Rankin was a major talent. The reasons he was not more successful may be due to bad timing and other factors. It’s a truism that everybody understands: genius and ability are not reasons enough to succeed in the music business. But these discs are evidence that Rankin should be heard by those who were too young to catch him during his heyday.