by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
The oft-forgotten record label Little David (an Atlantic Records subsidiary that lasted from 1970 through 1980) was co-founded and co-owned by the legendary comedian Flip Wilson, so it makes sense that the label primarily focused on comedy albums from such acts as the legendary George Carlin, Franklin Ajaye, the improv group The Committee, the comedy duo of Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber, and, of course, Flip himself. But though the label is best remembered for its releases from Carlin (including the massively influential and groundbreaking Class Clown, which included the legend’s now-iconic “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine) and Wilson, Little David also quietly signed a small and well-chosen handful of musical acts as well, including jazz greats Nat Adderley, John Lewis, Hank Jones, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, as well as a soft-pop singer-songwriter by the name of Kenny Rankin, who would regularly open for Carlin throughout the ‘70s and even perform at the comedian’s memorial service in 2008.
Rankin never so much as had a single crack the Hot 100, never mind the Top 40, but his music – a very unique blend of pop, folk, R&B and jazz that made him appealing to listeners of all kinds – is far more commercially accessible than you might suspect for someone with such little success on the singles charts as a performer – Helen Reddy, in fact, scored a sizable hit by covering Rankin’s song “Peaceful,” taking it all the way to #12 – and he’s also got some pretty high-profile admirers. [Legendary jazz saxophonist Stan Getz even once dubbed Rankin “a horn with a heartbeat.”]
Long before he ever released his debut album, Rankin secured himself a bit of rock-and-roll immortality by getting tapped to serve as one of the session guitarists on Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home album, notably appearing on, among other cuts, “Maggie’s Farm” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” In the late ‘60s, he would be signed as a solo artist to Mercury Records, for whom he would release his first two albums, 1967’s Mind Dusters (which contained the original version of “Peaceful” and also featured liner notes written by one of Rankin’s most famous and avid fans, the legendary Tonight Show host Johnny Carson; Rankin would go on to appear on Carson’s show nearly two dozen times) and 1970’s Family.
Rankin’s Little David debut, 1972’s Like a Seed (featuring a new studio recording of “Peaceful”), would be his best-selling album yet, but it’s his second album for the label, 1974’s Silver Morning, that truly remains his masterpiece as a singer-songwriter, one that impressively contains absolutely no filler whatsoever. Aided by an ace crop of players that includes the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, drummers Jim Gordon and John Guerin, guitarist Richard Bennett (a longtime Neil Diamond sideman who co-wrote “Forever in Blue Jeans”) and backing vocalists Deniece Williams (later to rocket to fame with the chart-topping duet “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” with Johnny Mathis and “Let’s Hear It from the Boy” from Footloose) and Jim Gilstrap (best known for singing the opening line of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”), Rankin is in top form here as a performer and songwriter both.
The disc is perhaps most famous for its two Beatles covers, both of McCartney tunes. “Blackbird” doesn’t differ radically from the Beatles’ own arrangement – though its guitar track does cleverly work in an extra bit of scale practice – but it’s performed with such delicacy and emotion that it might even be more lovely and haunting than the original; lest this compliment seem over-the-top, if not sacrilege to say, consider that McCartney himself is so deeply fond of Rankin’s cover that he specially asked that Rankin come and play his version of the tune when McCartney and Lennon were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame! Kenny’s cover of “Penny Lane,” in contrast, is radically different from the original, not in the least since Rankin jettisons nearly all of the song’s lyrics. The track wasn’t actually planned that way; Rankin, not having a lyric sheet in front of him, more or less scatted his way through the verses to serve as a guiding vocal for his backing band while they were cutting the song’s rhythm track, and, upon playback, everyone decided the song actually sounded quite good that way! It might seem a bit silly an idea on paper to dispose with the song’s famously picturesque verses, but when you actually listen to it, you realize that the idea is actually nothing short of brilliant. McCartney’s melody is so sunny and happy that it just makes sense to hear someone scatting their way through the song as if they were bopping down the sidewalk on a clear day without a care in the world. It’s naturally not the most commercial spin Rankin could have put on the song, but his arrangement captures the spirit of the song perfectly.
There are three additional covers here, all remarkably well-done: Gordon Lightfoot’s “Pussywillows, Cat-Tails,” the Curtis Mayfield-penned Impressions classic “People Get Ready,” and the bossa-nova standard “Berimbau” (previously best known to American audiences via Astrud Gilberto and Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66’s covers on the discs Look to the Rainbow and Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, respectively). “Berimbau” in particular, with its Latin vibe and intoxicating blend of instrumentation that includes electric piano, violin, and heavy percussion, is a major standout and a captivating closing cut.
But Rankin’s own originals – most of them penned with then-wife Yvonne – are every bit as strong from a compositional standpoint as the more famous songs he covers here. The light swing of “Haven’t We Met” is Rankin’s own version of a song that he and Ruth Batchelor had written over a decade earlier and had already been recorded by such jazz legends as Carmen MacRae and Mel Torme; it’s tragic that the song isn’t even better-known, because it has all the makings of a jazz standard and one that the likes of Michael Bublé or Harry Connick, Jr. would be savvy to cover themselves. The R&B-infused “Catfish,” on the other hand, is a sadly overlooked album cut that might have made great cover material for any number of Philly-soul artists.
The jazzy “In the Name of Love” is almost impossible to listen to without calling to mind the brand of playful, word-heavy, syncopated pop that dominated Jason Mraz’s debut album Waiting for My Rocket to Come, and apparently, Mraz must be some kind of fan of Rankin’s, because he’s quite fittingly covered this very tune in concert!
But perhaps the most creative cut here of all is the album-opening title cut, a lushly-orchestrated ballad that unusually opens with the line “And when I think of you …,” and gradually builds in intensity from a lazy jazz groove into a power ballad before morphing momentarily into a driving rocker that culminates in the track returning full-circle to the lush balladry of its intro.
Rankin continued to record regularly all the way through 1977’s The Kenny Rankin Album (a mostly covers-oriented disc arranged and conducted by the legendary Don Costa and featuring a stark reworking of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that was reportedly George Harrison’s favorite cover of the song), but his profile would begin to ebb shortly after and Rankin would release just two albums during the ‘80s. Rankin’s final album would be 2002’s A Song for You, the singer-songwriter sadly passing away from lung cancer in 2009.