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Artist Feature

Kenny Rankin

Kenny Rankin came into the larger public consciousness in the early 1970s. It was the era of the singer-songwriter, and although he fit the profile, Rankin transcended that genre. He had many more musical ingredients – folk, pop, jazz, country, doo-wop, Brazilian, standards and soul – and much more musicality than the average retooled folkie. It was the best kind of eclecticism and Rankin was, as Duke Ellington classified, beyond category.

Rankin brought a finely tuned sophistication and a capacity for a surprising variety of musical expression to contemporary pop music. His high tenor voice – vulnerable yet capable of conveying many emotional gradations – helped Rankin establish instant intimacy with audiences everywhere. Though he might appear with a trio, Rankin often performed alone. A singer with only his guitar between him and the audience, Rankin was a knight without armor. He seemed to relish the exposed posture; it underscored the emotional nakedness of his performances. Paul McCartney was so taken with Rankin’s version of “Blackbird” that he invited Kenny to perform the tune when Lennon and McCartney were inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.

Rankin grew up in New York City and absorbed the many forms of music around him like a sponge. He sang a cappella in the hallways of the same neighborhood that Dion DiMucci and Teddy Randazzo lived in. It would be no surprise to his old friends when doo-wop elements surfaced later in songs like “Roll-A-Round” on the Inside album.

A Greenwich Village apprenticeship brought Rankin into contact with producer Tom Wilson in ‘65. At Wilson’s invitation, Rankin played rhythm guitar on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm” for Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home.

His songs preceded him into the national marketplace: Mel Tormé recorded Rankin’s bright waltz “Haven’t We Met” on his A Lush Romantic Album of ‘65 and Helen Reddy took “Peaceful” to the Top Ten in ‘73.

Validation came in the form of a deal with Little David Records. Rankin’s struggle suddenly turned into a journey. Founded by Monte Kay, Little David was a boutique label whose main artists were comedians Flip Wilson and George Carlin. Jazz entrepreneur Kay’s résumé included the fabled Royal Roost nightclub, the Miles Davis Tentet (the so-called Birth of the Cool band), and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Rankin couldn’t have been happier to be in such company.

Kay was a hands-on CEO with his partner and prolific jazz producer Jack Lewis. Together they co-produced Rankin's first three albums with the label. Lewis had the vision to place Rankin in a variety of musical settings that showed off different facets of the singer's assets. The debut of Mind-Dusters (’67) had an imaginative redesign of Fred Neil's "Dolphins" that backed Rankin with a string quartet. It served notice that a new and exciting artist was developing.

Michael Stewart came on board to produce Silver Morning (’74), and stayed to produce the next few albums. Yvonne, Kenny's then wife, co-produced Inside (’75) with Stewart. She co-wrote numerous songs with Rankin and her lyrics were a major influence on his melodies throughout his recordings during this time.

Jazz singer Ruth Price booked him many times at her Jazz Bakery performance space in Culver City. She observed a benign shrewdness on Rankin’s part: “He liked to be out in the audience as the people filed in; I’ve never seen anybody else do that. It allowed him to get a real feel for the room and tailor his performances.

Price also recognized Rankin’s musical worth. “I was a real fan of what he sang,” she says. “His intonation was amazing. Most of the time he sang with no vibrato, and when he would jump octaves he’d hit those notes square on the head.”

Chris Rankin, Kenny’s son and a longtime music industry professional, sees his father’s work this way: “I think what my father really tried to do is put a voice to the human experience, in all of its forms. His songs examined those human challenges from every angle with a beautiful voice and a lot of emotional depth. He was willing to share it all with his audience. Love was a predominant theme throughout his work: romantic love, loss of love, and love’s redemption. He was never afraid to express his emotions through his work; he loved playing for the people.

“He had a unique way of hearing other people’s songs and finding new things in them. My family is very proud of my father’s musical legacy and we’re very appreciative that his albums are going to be reissued.” Mack Avenue label President Denny Stilwell comments, “Kenny Rankin and Sly Dog Records are a perfect match for the prototype singer-songwriter that he embodied. A natural musician with a vocal talent that wrung every nuance from deeply evocative lyrics. Lyrics both common and ethereal – everyday and extraordinary. Kenny’s gift and these landmark recordings are a treasure and it’s an honor to be involved with their reintroduction. Our cooperative relationship with Kenny’s family has been open and unified in our mutual goals – first and foremost, the active care-taking of Kenny Rankin’s legacy.”