If the cover of the latest issue of Uncut is any indication, “lost” albums never lose their appeal for the musicallyinclined or obsessed. Music fans always want what they don’t have or haven’t heard or hear is hard to get. It’s the allure of the forbidden record. And it’s a chief symptom of the record collecting psychoses.
And then there are lost performers. Singer and guitarist Kenny Rankin kind of falls into that category. The records he made in the Seventies, which Johnny Carson of all people so loved, are now nearly forgotten. When I asked a musically literate friend about him before I wrote this, his first question was, “Is that the guy who did `Popsicle Toes?’ ” (no, that was Michael Franks). His biggest hit, if that’s what you can it, was a version of “Blackbird,” that appeared on his Silver Morning record. With one foot in jazz and one in singer/songwriter territory, he specialized in being a warmer, jazzier version of folk singers like James Taylor. The stuff was lightweight to be sure“soft rock” was the term usedbut he did have a supple voice and was a good guitar player. Although he made a specialty out of covers like his surprising rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Up From The Skies,” he also wrote songs, none more famous than “Peaceful Feeling” which Helen Reddy made a Top Ten hit in 1973. Rankin achieved perhaps his greatest fame by being the rhythm guitarist on several tunes including “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” on Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home(1965).
Once just a lost performer, Rankin now also falls into another, much sadder group; that of performers who died just as they were literally on the cusp of a comeback. Recently signed to Michiganbased jazz label Mack Avenue Records, Rankin had licensed to Mack Avenue his first six records, from 1967’s MindDusters to 1975’s Silver Morning. He also had plans for a session on the east coast (he was based in L.A.), produced by Phil Ramone at the Berklee School of Music in Boston in what Mack Avenue told me was a “controlled, semi-live performance.” I’m thinking that translates to a live show, with retakes, in front of a small audience of fans. According to the folks at Mack Avenue, Kenny had actually played them some of the new music that he intended to record at the sessions. Unfortunately, Kenny was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2009 and was gone in June. His first six records were reissued by Sly Dog/Mack Avenue in February 2010. As emotional rollercoasters go, Mack Avenue had a very rough road last year having lost one of their smooth jazz stars, Wayman Tisdale who also had cancer, just a month before Rankin passed. In listening to the Rankin reissues, they are as sunny and upbeat as I remembered them to be. And he did have a gift. It would have been interesting to see how he would have updated his sound on that new record he never got to make.