He was introduced to music by his mother, who sang at home and for friends. Early in his career he worked as a singer-songwriter, while a well-regarded guitarist, he played in Bob Dylan’s backup band on the influential 1965 album “Bringing It All Back Home.”
He developed a considerable following during the 70s with a steady flow of albums, debuting with Mind-Dusters in 1967, three of which broke into the Top 100 of the Billboard Album Chart. His liking for jazz was evident from an early age, but the times were such that in order to survive his career had to take a more pop-oriented course. By the 90s, however, he was able to angle his repertoire to accommodate his own musical preferences and to please a new audience while still keeping faith with the faithful. Rankin’s warm singing style and his soft, nylon-stringed guitar sound might suggest an artist more attuned to the supper-club circuit than the jazz arena, but his work contains many touches that appeal to the jazz audience.
In his early career TV host Johnny Carson was so impressed with Kenny’s voice and music, he appeared on The Tonight Show more than twenty five times. Carson was such a fan that he wrote the liner notes for Rankin’s 1967 debut LP, “Mind Dusters.” Beginning in 1972 Rankin was often the opening act or musical guest for comedian George Carlin’s live performances. Both were signed to the David Geffen label and the two flew in Carlin’s private jet for gigs across the US. Though Rankin had kicked his drug habit at Phoenix House, touring with Carlin brought him back to using cocaine. Rankin and Carlin toured together off and on for nearly 10 years. Rankin sang at Carlin’s memorial service in June 2008.
As a songwriter himself, his compositions have been performed by artists such as Mel Tormé and Carmen McRae, Stephen Bishop, Leon Russell, while Stan Getz said of him that he was “a horn with a heartbeat”. Rankin was deeply interested in Brazilian music and his Here In My Heart, on which he used jazz guests including Michael Brecker and Ernie Watts, was recorded mostly in Rio de Janeiro. More contemporary songs were given an airing following his move to Verve Records, including the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.”
Rankin’s own unique gift for reworking classic songs such as The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” which he recorded for his 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. His cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was so much beloved by George Harrison that his family chose it for George’s memorial service.
Rankin died on June 7, 2009 of lung cancer, three weeks after he was diagnosed with the illness. He was 69.
Writing in The Guardian, after Rankin’s death, Adam Sweeting quoted Denny Stilwell, President of Mack Avenue Records, as saying: “At the time of his death he had been preparing new material for recording. “His voice was still in its finest form… He sounded absolutely amazing”.