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.