The jazz and pop world recently lost a talented artist when singer, songwriter, and guitarist Kenny Rankin passed away from lung cancer on June 7, 2009. At 69, Rankin still possessed a delicate yet powerful voice that could reinterpret standards as well as modern classics such as The Beatles's “Blackbird.” In fact, he was preparing to record an album under producer Phil Ramone, but canceled sessions after his illness deteriorated. According to obituaries, Johnny Carson and Paul McCartney counted themselves among his biggest fans, and legends such as Peggy Lee and Mel Tormé recorded his songs.
In the mid-80s, Rankin opened for the Manhattan Transfer on several dates. My parents and I had no prior knowledge of the opening act, so when he strode onstage at the Rialto Square Theater in Joliet, Illinois, we prepared to wait politely until he finished his set. Wielding just a guitar and his beautiful voice, Rankin proceeded to enchant the audience that night. At one point he sang a solemn tune while gently strumming his guitar; halfway through the song, I realized that he was covering “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the classic George Harrison-penned Beatles track. By stripping the song down to just voice and one instrument, Rankin effectively conveyed the sadness and quiet reflection of the lyrics. Soon after that night, I purchased my first Rankin album, which remains one of my favorites: The Kenny Rankin Album.
In 1976, Rankin recorded a mixture of standards and contemporary classics, backed by a Don Costa-conducted 60 piece orchestra. According to Rankin's website, the songs were recorded live in the studio in three days, with no overdubs.
This tactic produced an intimate sound, as if the listener were sitting in the front row of a Rankin concert. Despite the size of the orchestra, their strings never overpowered Rankin's soaring voice. According to AllMusic, The Kenny Rankin Album became the forerunner for other projects involving rock and soul artists covering jazz standards. In other words, Rankin paved the way for Natalie Cole, Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, and other artists who have dabbled in the jazz world.
Obviously the string arrangements compliment Rankin's voice perfectly on standards such as “Here's That Rainy Day” and “When Sunny Gets Blue,” the latter track allowing Rankin to display the higher range of his vocals. While he lingers on every word, Rankin never over sings the classics, letting the lyrics' beauty and the tune's gorgeous chord changes drive the tracks.
Mixed with these songs are modern classics such as Stephen Bishop's “On and On,” this arrangement much simpler than the original version. Sure, “You Are So Beautiful” has been covered numerous times (Joe Cocker and Kenny Rogers performing the most well-known versions), but Rankin manages to add a pleasant jazz slant to the tune. The Young Rascals' “Groovin'” also receives a jazz makeover, with a soft drum beat lending an airy quality.
Rankin previously recorded “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for his second album, 1970's Family. Here, the strings emphasize the melancholy and wistfulness of Harrison's words, and Rankin's delicate guitar picking evokes the emotion of the song's title. This arrangement lays bare the sadness and dreamy quality of Harrison's masterpiece, and shows how Beatles songs can be reinterpreted without robbing them of original intent.
In addition, Rankin successfully intersperses his own compositions with these classics with no interruption in the overall tone. “Make Believe,” “I Love You,” and “Through the Eye of the Eagle” utilize the orchestra's power, which allows Rankin to demonstrate his voice's ability to convey deep emotion without vocal histrionics.
Clearly teaming with Costa, who became famous through his work with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., was a masterstroke. Costa's exquisite arrangements perfectly compliment Rankin's voice, seamlessly integrating Rankin's pop background with jazz. This collaboration produced a unabashedly romantic album that also serves as an instant lesson in seemingly effortless singing.
Three years after re-teaming with Rankin on the 1980 album After the Roses, Costa passed away at the age of 58. Rankin continued to record through the 1990s and well into the 2000s, expanding his pop and jazz repertoire. His passing marks the end of a uniquely gifted guitarist and vocalist, and The Kenny Rankin Album serves as the ultimate showcase for his talents.Powered by Sidelines