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Singer Kenny Rankin Dies Of Lung Cancer

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In a remarkable music career that spanned more than three decades, singer/songwriter Kenny Rankin endeared himself to many of his constituents who loved and respected his work. Sadly, Rankin passed away on June 9, 2009 from complications relating to lung cancer. Rankin, a native New Yorker, was sixty nine years old.

Although he may not have been a household name, Kenny Rankin was a musician’s musician who released thirteen studio albums during his career. Ranging from folk and jazz to pop, Rankin's music reached the Billboard album charts several times. Rankin’s warm singing style and soft sound appealed to music lovers across many genres, but it was his raw emotion and energy that made him so popular among his peers.

"My interpretation of the songs is purely emotional," Rankin explained. "We've all experienced disappointment and heartache, and that's what I draw upon. When I sing “A Song for You” and “Where Do You Start?” or “She Was Too Good to Me,” I’m really hurting for the people in the song. I never change lyrics, because when I select a song it's usually because of how the lyric impacts me. I've been accused of straying from the melody, but when I sing I'm feeling, not thinking."

Rankin grew up in the multicultural section of New York’s Washington Heights and was introduced to an eclectic array of music, from Afro Cuban to Top 40 radio, from jazz to Brazilian.

As a teenager, he signed with Decca Records and cut a handful of singles with little success. In 1965, Rankin played guitar on Bob Dylan’s LP Bringing It All Back Home. This appearance and a combination of other studio work and exposure plus industry contacts and an appearance on The Tonight Show landed him a recording contract with Mercury Records. Johnny Carson was so impressed with Rankin, he contributed liner notes to Rankin’s first album, 1967’s Mind Dusters. Rankin would go on to make over twenty appearances on the show.

The LP introduced his song “Peaceful,” which has been covered by numerous artists (Helen Reddy hit #2 on the Adult Contemporary charts and #12 on the Pop charts with the song in 1973). The album’s mix of original songs and creative remakes of other material would serve him well on his subsequent releases such as Family (1970), Like A Seed (1972), Silver Morning (1975) and Inside (1976).

Rankin's unique gift for reworking classic songs such as the Beatles' "Blackbird" (on the Silver Morning album), so impressed Paul McCartney that he asked Rankin to perform his interpretation of the song when McCartney and John Lennon were inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.

Rankin's insightful songwriting talents have been widely recognized by his peers. For example, his song "In the Name of Love," inspired a very memorable version by songstress Peggy Lee, while his song "Haven't We Met" has been recorded by a number of popular jazz and pop artists including Carmen McRae and Mel Torme. Additionally, Stephen Bishop had a major hit with his song "On and On,” which was a #11 hit in the US in 1977.

His 1976 release, the critically acclaimed The Kenny Rankin Album was recorded live in the studio and paired him up with a sixty piece orchestra that was arranged and produced by the legendary Don Costa. The duo teamed up again in 1980 for the album After The Roses. Throughout the eighties, Rankin concentrated his efforts on live stage shows, Brazilian music, and pop and jazz standards.

Rankin continued to cut pop-flavored jazz and had been preparing to record an album of new material when he became ill a few weeks ago. Recording sessions scheduled with producer Phil Ramone were canceled as his health began to deteriorate.

"That he was still at the top of his game is one of the saddest parts of his passing for me," Denny Stilwell, president of Mack Avenue Records, said in a statement. "He performed the new material in our office over the last few months and his voice was still in its finest form — he sounded absolutely amazing. Our hearts and prayers are with his family."

Rankin summed up his career in a quote from his official website.

"I just feel privileged that I've been allowed to continue in my craft, and I've been encouraged by all the positive feedback I've gotten from people over the years. When someone tells you a song changed their life, or inspired them to look at things in a slightly different way, well, you can't ask for a better reward than that."

That is what songs and music are supposed to do. Rest in peace Mr. Rankin.

Studio albums

Mind-Dusters (1967)
Family (1970)
Like a Seed (1972)
Inside (1975)
Silver Morning (1975)
The Kenny Rankin Album (1976)
After the Roses (1980)
Hiding in Myself (1988)
Because of You (1991)
Professional Dreamer (1994)
Here in My Heart (1997)
A Christmas Album (1999)

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About Robert Benson

  • Helena

    Kenny Kankin was among the best — he is missed…no one has that voice…so pure, so fine…

    Good Night Sweet Prince – Go to the Light and make some beautiful music on the other side…I know the angels will be learning from you

  • anon

    I just went to the Paul McCartney concert a few days ago and he sang “Blackbird.” I will have to check out Kankin’s rendition.

  • MissParisBest

    Listening to Kenny Rankin sing is to experience some of the most magnificent, magical moments in your lifetime. I hope Kenny knows how much he is loved and missed. Thanks for your great article, Mr. Benson.