CD Reviews: Peggy Lee and Kenny Rankin

By Don Heckman

Peggy Lee and Kenny Rankin probably never worked together – at least not that I know of.  And they’re a generation apart in age.  Lee was born in 1920.  Rankin was born in 1940, a year before Lee began her breakout career with the Benny Goodman Band.  Despite those differences, there were similarities, as well.  Both were singer/songwriters (even though the term wasn’t in use during the period of Lee’s career).  Both were also convincing interpreters of other songwriters’ music.  And both crossed over freely between pop music and jazz.  Two reissue collections provide convincing evidence of their memorable artistry.

Peggy Lee

Two Shows Nightly (Collectors’ Choice Music)

Let’s Love (Collectors’ Choice Music)

Originally scheduled for release in 1964, Two Shows Nightly chronicled a live recording at New York’s Copacabana.  Lee, however, was not pleased with the original audio, and refused to allow its release.  Now it’s been issued – with the permission of the Peggy Lee Estate – in a newly remastered version.  And it’s a welcome addition to the Lee catalog.  Twelve of the tunes trace to the Copacabana performance, and twelve more bonus tracks have been added.  All are stunning illustrations of Lee’s remarkable versatility as a singer, songwriter and interpreter.

The highlights include her versions of a collection of then very contemporary songs: An exquisite rendering of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Until It’s Time For You To Go”;  A trio of songs from Tim Hardin – “Misty Roses,” “It’ll Never Happen Again” and two versions of “Reason To Believe”;  Jim Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”; John Sebastian’s “Didn’t Want To Have To Do it.”

And there’s more:  A pair of Broadway musical tunes — “What Is A Woman?” from the Broadway musical I Do! I Do!, “My Personal Property” from Sweet Charity and “Do I Hear A Waltz?” from the show of the same name.  As well as her own  “That Man,” “Stay With Me” and her high spirited version of the traditional “Hand On the Plow.”  It’s hard to imagine another singer who could have brought such an diverse array of skills to such an eclectic program of songs.  (Unfortunately, Lee’s version of Kenny Rankin’s “In the Name of Love” – a direct connection between the two — didn’t make it into the line up.)

The focus of the 1974 album, Let’s Love, is the title track song, written and produced for Lee by Paul McCartney.  But, although it’s the theme for an album clearly aimed at the songs of the decade, its traditional love song characteristics make it – like many of Sir Paul’s ballads – into a timeless item, enhanced by Lee’s lovely interpretation.  In the balance of the program Lee’s readings and Dave Grusin’s arrangements work similar magic, finding the individual heart of songs such as the Stylistics ’“You Make Me Feel Brand New,” James Taylor’s torchy (in Lee’s hands) “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” Melissa Manchester’s gospel-driven “He Is The One” and Lee’s atmospheric lyrics for Grusin’s theme for the film “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.”  Not exactly in the top level of Lee’s superb discography, Let’s Love is, nonetheless, a significant example of her ability to bring inimitable musicality to everything she touched.

Kenny Rankin

Mind Dusters (1967)

Family (1970)

Like A Seed (1972)

Inside (1975)

Silver Morning (1975)

The Kenny Rankin Album (1976)

(All on Mack Avenue/Sly Dog Records)

Rankin, who died in June 2009, was a prominent member of the singer/songwriter generation of the ‘60s and ‘70s.  A fine instrumentalist, he played rhythm guitar on Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm.”  His songs had the sort of universal appeal that generated cover versions by the likes of Mel Torme (“Haven’t We Met”) and Helen Reddy (with a Top Ten placement for “Peaceful”).  And his voice, reaching effortlessly beyond three octaves, was a musical wonder.

To celebrate what would have been Rankin’s 70th birthday today (February 10) Mack Avenue is releasing his first six albums on their Sly Dog Records imprint.  And one could hardly have asked for a more generous collection of Rankin at his best – from the first album, Mind Duster, to The Kenny Rankin Album, nearly a decade later.

Mind Duster, Rankin’s first album came after he had garnered Johnny Carson as a fan, appearing frequently on the Tonight Show, and Carson wrote laudatory notes for the recording.  The program is planned well, with seven originals (some written with wife Yvonne) out of the twelve selections – including Rankin’s first recorded version of “Peaceful.”  His interpretive mastery, obvious at this early stage, is apparent in his covers of the songs of three other, highly regarded singer/songwriters — Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,”  Fred Neil’s “The Dolphin” and Gordon Lightfoot’s  ”Song For A Winter’s Night.”

Family displays Rankin’s extraordinary versatility with a program embracing songs by Carol King & Gerry Goffin, Gordon Lightfoot, Stephen Stills, Hank Williams, Donovan Leitch and his usual affection for Beatles songs (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Dear Prudence”).  The sole original (written with Yvonne Rankin), “Soft Guitar,” is a typically, cool, laid-back, utterly lyrical tune.

Like A Seed is the only album of the six completely devoted to original songs, mostly written by Rankin with his wife, Yvonne.  And its title is unintentionally appropriate, in the sense that it is a collection of beautifully crafted tunes that –- with the exception of the Helen Reddy hit on “Peaceful” — have not received especially wide attention or coverage from other artists.  Which is a shame, because songs such as “You Are My Woman,” “Stringman” and“Eartheart” (to name only a few) have extraordinary potential to blossom, even now, more than three decades after they were written.

Inside Kenny Rankin opens more new vistas for Rankin’s every eager musical curiosity.  “Inside,” with its spoken word segment and improvisational backing from a jazz rhythm section and vibist Gary Burton is a fascinatingly offbeat track.  Shifting gears, he does the standard “Sunday Kind of Love” with the padding of an organ trio and back up singers.  Other compelling tracks include his lovely, voice-and-guitar reading of John Sebastian’s “She’s A Lady” as well as Jimi Hendrix’s “Up From the Skies” a deeply touching rendering of Randy Newman’s “Marie” and the family fun harmonizing (with his wife and children) on “Roll-A-Round.”

Silver Morning – one of the most appealing of the six CDs — features a program in which nearly half the tunes are Rankin originals – a welcome inclusion – especially the lyrical title piece and a pair of brightly swinging 6/4 “In the Name of Love” and “Haven’t We Met.”  A pair of Beatles songs are highlighted by Rankin’s superb version of “Blackbird,” so favored by Paul McCartney that he invited Rankin to perform it when Lennon & McCartney were inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.  It’s also good to hear Rankin singing with fairly small ensembles, minus the orchestral settings that clutter a few of the tracks on some of the other albums.

The Kenny Rankin Album is filled with riches.  There’s a particularly engaging version of Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful.” There, as elsewhere, Rankin’s soaring high notes are a wonder to hear.  He also explores other, sometimes unexpected areas, as well, in his characteristically high flying interpretations of  “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “On and On” and “When Sunny Gets Blue.”  The only problem with the album is the mid-‘70s affection for long orchestral fades, which are far too present, especially in the distracting ending of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

3 thoughts on “CD Reviews: Peggy Lee and Kenny Rankin

  1. Listening to Kenny Rankin sing— is to experience the sheer delight of some truly magnificent, magical moments in your lifetime! I hope he knows just how much he is loved and missed. Thanks for your great article, Don.

    Paris Best, San Diego

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  2. I was fan fan of Peggy Lee as a young boy growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. My Dad used to lister too WNEW AM in New York, who played her songs frequently.

    I was a big fan of Kenny Rankin, who I saw and heard on the Tonight Show, Midnight Special (early 70’s), and in person many many times in and around New York City. He was the most underated vocalist of his time, and had a superior stage presence when you saw him live. Hearing him sing on CDs still gives me great joy.

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