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'I was always saved by the music'

Remembering Kenny Rankin

Kenny RankinThe seeds of my friendship with Kenny Rankin were planted during my first interview with the singer-songwriter-musician 25 years ago. I was a college newspaper reporter who hadn't yet learned (or accepted) the alleged journalistic tenet that you're not supposed to befriend the interviewee. During our conversation, I just couldn't hide my reverence for the man or his music. Gracious in his appreciation, Kenny and I proceeded to talk about music and so much more for several hours. It was somewhere in the third hour that I forgot I was doing an interview and stopped taking notes.

Growing steadily but slowly over the proceeding two decades and subsequent many interviews, our friendship blossomed in 2008 when he asked me to help him write his autobiography. That led to several marathon conversations in which he shared things with me that I couldn't believe he wanted the world to know. Let's just say there was much pain and sadness in Kenny's life. But as he often said to me, "I was always saved by the music."

That was in fact the theme and working title of the book, which sadly will never be published. We'd only touched on five or six chapters when Kenny died rather suddenly of lung cancer in Los Angeles last June. But his music lives on. This month, the Mack Avenue label imprint Sly Dog Records releases re-mastered versions of six of Rankin's most beloved titles. "Mind Dusters" (1967), "Family" (1970), "Like A Seed" (1972), "Silver Morning" (1974), "Inside" (1975) and "The Kenny Rankin Album" (1976) will all be available at popular retailers Feb. 16; all six are already available for download at online digital sellers (iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, eMusic, etc).

Musical anomaly

Musically, Kenny was an anomaly. Growing up in New York City, he absorbed the many forms of music that surrounded him in his Washington Heights neighborhood. He sang a cappella on the same street corners and hallways as Dion DiMucci and Teddy Randazzo. Kenny knew by the fourth grade that music was his destiny when his teacher, Isabel Pringle, had him sing "Oh Holy Night" for a school Christmas play. After he sang it, the teacher told him it was "lovely." Kenny never again considered another occupation.

Kenny RankinLanding a memorable gig as rhythm guitarist on "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Maggie's Farm" on Bob Dylan's "Bringing It All Back Home" album, Kenny signed with Decca while still in his teens. From the start of his solo career, he confounded critics who, in their infinitely limited capacity, could never quite figure him out. A true artist in a commercial world, Kenny's music had elements of jazz, folk, country, pop, Brazilian, doo-wop, standards and soul. But that was the very essence of Rankin's genius: His music was a delicious stew of all these styles; it all worked. Critics didn't always get it. But musicians did. Duke Ellington once said that Kenny's music was beyond categorization – and he meant it as the ultimate compliment.

Despite the difficulties for music writers, record labels and record buyers in pigeonholing Rankin, audiences did find and embrace him. Kenny enjoyed a loyal if not huge following, and continued up until his death last year to sell out nightclub gigs in a music world dominated by the likes of Lady Gaga. But as even Kenny admitted, his golden years were in the 1970s, when most of his finest recordings were released. The '70s were when he had enjoyed his closest brushes with stardom.

During that decade, Kenny was on the legendary Little David record label along with Flip Wilson and George Carlin, who became a close friend of Rankin's and toured with him. One of Johnny Carson's favorite singers, Kenny appeared on "The Tonight Show" more than 20 times in that decade and was also on NBC's "The Midnight Special." 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. Scores of artists recorded Rankin's songs. Mel Tormé recorded Rankin's jazzy "Haven't We Met," and Helen Reddy enjoyed a Top 20 hit with Rankin's mellow classic "Peaceful" in 1973.

Darkness and light

To listen to Kenny's music, one would never guess how much darkness there was in his personal life. Despite a shockingly abusive childhood, a seemingly endless string of troubled relationships and family squabbles, alcoholism and more, and the fact that he never was appropriately recognized for his rare and unique talent, Kenny never gave in or gave up. He never lost his dry sense of humor, and his music – from his first record to his last – was filled with transcendent beauty. To write and sing such lovely, bitter-free songs while coping with so many demons is a testament to Kenny's courage, and to music itself.

Best known as a tenor, Kenny, who would've turned 70 this month, had a four-octave range. Unlike so many of his fellow tenors, Rankin's voice was resonant, masculine and deeply soulful. There was simply no one else like him in popular music. His ethereal voice came from a place inside him where there was no fear and no pain.

The first Rankin song I ever heard was one of his originals, "Silver Morning," a poignant, hopeful piano journey that starts slowly and quietly but builds to a stirring climax on an impossibly long high vocal note. I was 13 and watching "The Tonight Show" on a Friday night with my mom and dad when Rankin came on and sang that tune. None of us had heard of him, but by the end of the song we were all wanting more. The following afternoon I rode my back to a nearby record store and purchased the "Silver Morning" album that contains that title track. It exceeded my great expectations. Of course, I never imagined when I was a kid watching Kenny on television and buying his records that one day he and I would become friends.

Despite Kenny's sometimes oppressive melancholy, he was touched by and proud of how much his music meant to people. He never took his loyal audience for granted. And it was also glaringly obvious how much Kenny's music really did keep him out of the darkness. It had the same effect on me. Throughout my life, whenever I've felt down or felt like I had lost my joy or my love for music, I've often turned to Kenny's music for a reminder of how much beauty there really is in this world.

The last time I saw Kenny perform live was two years ago at a then-new jazz supper club in San Diego called Anthology, a collaboration of world-class music and outstanding food. It was the perfect venue, both modern and old school. The crowd was adoring, and Rankin, who as usual seemed genuinely amazed at the love and loyalty of his audience, was his typical mix of sweet and cynical. Kenny had plenty of charm, but he was jaded, too, and could be caustic. His between-song banter was always witty and funny, but sometimes he went too far and could alienate. This night, however, he was perfect.

Kenny was so "on," rolling through his ingenious interpretations of Beatles' and other pop songs and his affectionate covers of jazz standards. That was the stuff on which music writers and even fans typically focused. But for me, it was always his originals that cut the deepest. I always wished he would perform more of his own compositions live. They revealed so much more about Kenny's heart. As highly regarded as Rankin was by his fellow musicians as a singer and guitar player, he really never got his due as a songwriter. But even the covers he made his own.

As Kenny's son, Chris Rankin, a longtime music industry professional, recently said, "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."

No eulogies

If there were any justice, Kenny would have been a superstar and his death would have been widely and publicly mourned. When Kenny left us, there were lamentably few eulogies for him in the music press. I guess all those wise entertainment editors out there just couldn't squeeze in a tribute to someone so singularly talented as Rankin between the chronicles of Chris Brown's brutal assault on Rhianna and John Mayer's pathetic love life.

Over the years, I've sometimes cynically and perhaps even unfairly judged those who don't like or pay attention to Rankin's music. In my younger, more strident days I felt that these people were flawed humans whose hearts were missing a valve. I know that's harsh and silly; music is so subjective. But there is no music more melodic or pure than Kenny Rankin's. I guess some people, bless their little hearts, just can't look directly into the light of pure beauty, in any form of art, be it a song or a painting or a sculpture or a poem. They need for it to be disguised or cleverly obscured or twisted in some way.

Kenny Rankin had no time for or interest in pretense. He had no veneer. He sang covers, but wore no masks. His music was a naked reflection of the light in his soul. And now that his best recordings are mercifully being remastered, reissued and publicized, maybe a few more music lovers out there will see the light, and be saved by the music. Maybe a few more folks will appreciate the timeless artistry of this man I was proud to know and call friend.

Published February 2010

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