June 9, 2009
Kenny Rankin, Melder of Jazz and Pop, Dies at 69
By PETER KEEPNEWS
Kenny Rankin, a singer, songwriter and guitarist whose easygoing style straddled the worlds of pop, jazz and folk, died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 69 and lived in Los Angeles.
The cause was complications of lung cancer, his family said.
Singing in a soft, lilting voice and accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Mr. Rankin was often categorized as an introspective singer-songwriter in the James Taylor mold. But he drew inspiration from a wide range of sources: the Brazilian singer João Gilberto was an acknowledged influence, as were Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis. And though he wrote a number of memorable songs — his “Peaceful” was a Top 20 hit for Helen Reddy in 1973, and other songs of his were recorded by the likes of Peggy Lee and Mel Tormé — he was best known as an interpreter of other people’s.
Mr. Rankin’s albums tended to include a handful of original compositions but consisted mostly of his own distinctly laid-back, gently swinging spin on the Beatles, Bob Dylan and others. In recent years he devoted increasing attention to Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and other songwriters of an earlier era.
Mr. Rankin was particularly partial to the Beatles. He recorded a number of their songs, including “Blackbird,” “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” When John Lennon and Paul McCartney were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987, Mr. McCartney asked Mr. Rankin to represent them at the induction ceremony.
Mr. Rankin’s association with Mr. Dylan was more personal. He was one of the guitarists on “Bringing It All Back Home,” the 1965 album that signaled Mr. Dylan’s transition from acoustic to electric music. One highlight of Mr. Rankin’s first album, “Mind-Dusters,” released in 1967, was his impressionistic version of Mr. Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
By the time Mr. Rankin recorded that album, he had acquired a high-profile fan in Johnny Carson, who would go on to present him on “The Tonight Show” more than 20 times. Carson also contributed liner notes to “Mind-Dusters.”
Born in Manhattan on Feb. 10, 1940, Mr. Rankin never formally studied music but began his recording career as a teenager with some singles for Decca. Over the years he recorded for Mercury, Atlantic and several other labels. He had recently signed with Sly Dog Records and was preparing to record a new album when he became ill a few weeks ago.
Mr. Rankin was divorced from Yvonne Rodriguez-Calderone. He is survived by a son, Chris; two daughters, Gena Rankin-Ray and Chandra Rankin; and a granddaughter.
If the music industry and music critics often had trouble characterizing Mr. Rankin’s music, he himself did not.
“Above all, I’m a jazz singer who likes to mess with the melody,” he told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1997. “I sing the songs that touch me in the heart, the songs I would like to sing to someone in front of a roaring fire on a feather couch draped in flowers.”
“But don’t get me wrong,” he added. “We don’t live in a fantasy world, though we all have one.”