From the mid 1970s on, I was a dedicated buyer of the Warner/Reprise compilation series called Loss Leaders. They were promotional sets that sold for $2 by mail, and contained a mix of familiar artists, up-and-comers, has-beens, and never-weres, hit songs and otherwise. I’d been buying them for a year or two by the time I got I Didn’t Know They Still Made Records Like This in 1977. I bought it for the hits: “I’ll Play for You,” “Then Came You,” “Rhiannon,” and “How Sweet it Is.” But as time went on, I found myself rarely playing the album to hear those songs.
We have mentioned before that the running order of songs on a particular album can become as important as the songs themselves. We hear one song and expect that it will be followed by a specific other, since that’s the way we’re used to hearing them. (This is what makes it possible to talk about classic album sides as a phenomenon distinct from classic albums. ) And the more I listened to I Didn’t Know They Still Made Records Like This, the more side three started to feel like an organic whole.
“Mama Told Me Not to Come” (live)/Randy Newman
“Singing the Blues”/John Sebastian
“Oh Papa”/Maria Muldaur
“Silver Morning”/Kenny Rankin
“Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Second Movement”/Waldo de los Rios
“Declaration-Atlas”/San Sebastian Strings
I must have been listening obsessively to this side in the fall of 1977 because “Carey” and “Oh Papa” have become essential October songs. “Mama Told Me Not to Come” is a perfunctory run-through of a song Newman had doubtless tired of singing by the middle of the 70s. “Singing the Blues” is an amiable cover of Guy Mitchell’s 1956 hit. Waldo de los Rios was a composer/conductor from Argentina who made a living transposing classical music to pop settings. The San Sebastian Strings were the unholy union of mood-music mistress Anita Kerr and mass-market poet Rod McKuen—think lush orchestrations and a whispery vocal chorale over which McKuen croaks out his doggerel. (“Atlas” contains the line “Love’s a better road map for tracking down the years than Rand-McNally ever made.” I probably thought that was pretty good poetry when I was 17, but now, yeesh.) And then there’s “Silver Morning,” which is the only Kenny Rankin record I have ever owned. I thought of it this morning when I learned that Rankin died at age 69 this past Sunday, three weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
Rankin’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times hits the highlights of his career: guitarist on Bob Dylan’s Bringing it All Back Home, longtime opening act for George Carlin, and 25-time guest on the Tonight Show—Johnny Carson was a major fan. He never had a hit single, although Helen Reddy scored a Number-12 hit with his song “Peaceful” in 1973, and “Haven’t We Met” was recorded by a number of jazz singers, including Mel Tormé. Although he came out of the singer/songwriter movement of the 1960s, he focused largely on jazz and pop standards for the majority of his career, releasing an album of standards as early as 1976.
“Silver Morning” was the title song of Rankin’s 1975 album. It doesn’t sound quite right when it’s not preceded by “Oh Papa” and followed by some faux Beethoven (or on a Tuesday in June, for that matter), but here it is.