Kenny Rankin dies at 69; singer-songwriter’s long career almost defied categorization

Kenny Rankin
Kenny Rankin, a singer-songwriter and guitarist, played in Bob Dylan’s backup band, did Beatles covers and spent several years opening for George Carlin.
(Los Angeles Times)

Kenny Rankin, a singer-songwriter and musician whose song “Peaceful” was a hit for Helen Reddy and who had popular covers himself of a pair of Beatles hits, has died. He was 69.

Rankin died Sunday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The cause of death, according to his management company, was lung cancer, which was diagnosed three weeks ago.

His career, which spanned more than five decades, almost defied categorization. A well-regarded guitarist, he played in Bob Dylan’s backup band on the influential 1965 album “Bringing It All Back Home.” He also spent several years on the road opening for comedian George Carlin.

Rankin appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson more than 25 times. Carson was such a fan that he wrote the liner notes for Rankin’s 1967 debut LP, “Mind Dusters.”

As a singer with a velveteen tenor voice, he had highly successful covers of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and “Penny Lane” in the mid-1970s and in 1976 recorded an LP of standards, “The Kenny Rankin Album,” with a large orchestra conducted by Don Costa.

In a review of a 2000 Rankin performance at a San Fernando Valley jazz club, critic Don Heckman wrote in The Times: “Rankin has been -- for a decade or more -- a singer whose unusual improvisational skills and innate capacity to deliver a melody with a strong sense of swing stamp him as a consistently appealing jazz artist.”

In addition to Reddy’s version of “Peaceful,” jazz singers Carmen McRae and Mel Torme recorded versions of Rankin’s and Ruth Batchelor’s “Haven’t We Met.”

Rankin was born Feb. 10, 1940, and grew up in the Washington Heights section of New York City. He was signed to Decca Records as a teenager and released a few singles. He later signed with Columbia Records.

One of his major influences was Laura Nyro, the late songwriter who wrote “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Stoned Soul Picnic,” whom he met in Greenwich Village in 1960.

“She profoundly changed my musical life and affected it to this day, more than anyone or anything else,” Rankin told the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto in 2007. “She was deep, dark and light, the spectrum of passion.”

His peak recording years were in the 1970s, when he released the LPs “Silver Morning,” “Inside” and “The Kenny Rankin Album.”

Paul McCartney was so pleased with Rankin’s covers of the Beatles hits, he asked him to sing a medley of them when McCartney was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987.

Rankin is survived by his son, Chris; daughters Gena and Chanda; and a granddaughter.

A memorial service is being planned in Los Angeles.

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