Fuller Up The Dead Musician Directory

John Morris Rankin
John Morris Rankin
January 16, 2000
Age 40

Car Accident 
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John Morris Rankin dies in crash

MARGAREE HARBOUR, N.S. (CP) -- John Morris Rankin, a member of the former Celtic group the Rankins, died Sunday after his truck plunged into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  

Three teenage passengers, including Rankin's son Michael, were able to escape from the vehicle and climb to safety following the 7:30 a.m. accident. They were taken to Cape Breton's Inverness Consolidated Hospital.

Family friend Emily Butler said it appeared that Rankin told the teens to jump out of the truck as it skidded towards the water.  

"John Morris told them to jump and they got out," she said. "John Morris went with the truck."  

Rankin, 40, died in the crash, the RCMP said in a release.  

It hadn't yet been determined how the vehicle ended up in the water.  

Morris Green of Nova Scotia Emergency Health Services said one of the teenagers was being treated for hypothermia and the other two appeared to be OK.  

Family friend and musician Denis Ryan said news of the accident spread quickly through the Nova Scotia music community.  

"It's awful, awful, awful," said Ryan, who played music with Rankin in the mid '80s.  

"I've known him for 25 years, for Christ's sake.... Why is it always the good people that die?"  

Ryan described Rankin as a dedicated family man and master carpenter who was like a younger brother to him.

"He was just a beautiful person to be around -- never offensive and could be awful funny at times.  And he did have a great Celtic humour and wit about him. (He) could laugh and smile and have fun with very simple things in life."

Butler, who knew the Rankins for more than 20 years and considered them her extended family, said Rankin's siblings were devastated by the news.  

She said the loss is a great blow for many in Cape Breton who followed John Rankin's rise to fame.  

"He was a very wonderful and talented young man and we're all heartsick," Butler said from Sydney, N.S.  

Rankin's brother Jimmy Rankin left a Farm Aid concert in Toronto after being notified of the death.  

Family friend Russell De Carle, lead singer for Prairie Oyster, said he was stunned when he heard the news at the benefit.  

"Oh God, it's just horrendous to say the least,"De Carle said from Toronto following his set at the concert.  

"He was a brilliant musician. It's a huge loss. It's unbelievable. I had an incredible amount of admiration for his playing. He was a brilliant musician, keyboardist and fiddle player."  

John Morris Rankin played fiddle and piano with the popular musical family from Cape Breton. The group broke up last summer so its members could pursue independent careers and interests.  

Over a decade-long, storybook career, the Mabou, N.S., family band rose from county fairs and church halls to become the most successful music acts on the East Coast through the 1990s.  
The five siblings sold more than two million records, won five Juno Awards, including group of the year in 1994, and took its Celtic- inflected music to the world.  

"We've had a great run," John Morris said last year after the breakup.

"It's been 10 years and they've gone by fast.  Originally we planned to do this for five years, and 10 have passed. 

"It's all been a positive experience for us." 

The family's early independent success -- they sold 75,000 records literally out of the back of a  car -- led to one of the first major-label music contracts in Atlantic Canada. 

After being courted by several Canadian labels, they finally signed with EMI Canada and  delivered five platinum records (each selling over 100,000 copies) through the '90s. Fare Thee  Well Love sold more than 500,000 copies alone.   Ryan described John Morris as a "rock" who  held the band together: "He brought stability. He brought leadership in a very subtle way.  He was very, really a solid guy. I mean really solid. Fame and fortune really didn't shake him."  

Brookes Diamond, a Halifax promoter who had known Rankin for more than 20 years, said he was "a lovely gentleman and a wonderful man" who loved country dances and was most happy at home in rural Cape Breton.  

"He had so much to look forward to in his new life," he said. 

"It's just an awful thing."

Besides Michael, 15, Rankin is survived by his  wife Sally and daughter Molly, 13. 


John Morris Rankin dies in accident
Fiddler's son, two others survive plunge

                  By Bruce Erskine / Staff Reporter Halifax Herald 

John Morris Rankin, fiddler and piano player with the popular Rankin Family band, was killed when his truck plunged into the Gulf of St. Lawrence Sunday morning. 

The accident at Whale Cove on the old coastal road between Dunvegan and Margaree Harbour occurred at 7:30 a.m. on Route 219, RCMP Cpl. Keith Brumwell said. 

Police say Mr. Rankin, 40, had three teenage boys, including his son, with him when his northbound sport-utility vehicle left the road and went over an embankment into the water 25 metres below.

"It was submerged in the water," Cpl. Brumwell said. "It's a miracle the kids survived." 

The boys, two aged 14 and one 15, were able to escape from the vehicle and climb back up to the road, police said.

Cpl. Brumwell said Mr. Rankin's 15-year-old son, Michael, was the first to reach the road and flagged down a passing car.

Mr. Rankin, who lived in Judique, was reportedly driving the boys to a hockey  tournament in Cheticamp.  

By the time paramedics arrived, the three boys had taken shelter at a nearby home, Emergency Health Services spokesman Morris Green said.  

The boys were later taken to Inverness Consolidated Hospital where they were treated for hypothermia, Mr. Green said.  

He did not know how the boys escaped from the truck, which was pulled from the water by firefighters.  

Family friend Emily Butler said it appeared that Rankin told the teens to jump out of the truck as it skidded towards the water.  

"John Morris told them to jump and they got out," she said. "John Morris went with the truck."  

Cpl. Brumwell called the efforts of Margaree Forks volunteer firefighters "heroic." 

"They had to put ropes on the vehicle to prevent it from washing out to sea," he said, adding that a family opened their nearby home to rescue workers.  

Roads were slippery at the time, and Cpl. Brumwell said a traffic analyst is trying to determine what caused the accident.  

According to the Department of Transportation, area roads were snow-covered but passable with caution Sunday morning.  

Three ambulances from Margaree and Inverness responded to the accident.

Mr. Rankin played with sisters Raylene, Cookie and Heather and brother Jimmy in the popular Celtic pop band for 10 years.  

The Juno award-winning group, which released several recordings and toured extensively, broke up last fall so members could pursue individual projects. 

Musician Denis Ryan said news of the accident spread quickly through the Nova Scotia music community.  

"It's awful, awful, awful," said Ryan, who played music with Rankin in the mid '80s.  

"I've known him for 25 years, for Christ's sake.... Why is it always the good people that die?"  

Ryan described Rankin as a dedicated family man and master carpenter who was like a younger brother to him.  

"He was just a beautiful person to be around - never offensive and could be awful funny at times. And he did have a great Celtic humour and wit about him. (He) could laugh and smile and have fun with very simple things in life."  

Longtime Rankins manager Mickey Quase said he has lost one of his best friends. 

"It's a terrible tragedy and a personal tragedy," Mr. Quase said. "He's been one of my best buddies for many, many years." 

Rankins fiddler Howie MacDonald first played alongside John Morris in the mid-'70s, and the pair often got the crowd hopping with passionate sets of Cape Breton fiddle tunes.

"When people think of him, they think of a solid individual, a man of few words with a dry wit and a very likeable guy," Mr. MacDonald said. 

"He will be referred to a lot. His music will stay around for a good while yet, and he's one of the people we will refer to when we're trying to explain how this music should be done or how it should feel." 

Aside from his son, Mr. Rankin is survived by his wife, Sally, and daughter, Molly, 13.

With Stephen Cooke and Greg Guy, entertainment reporters and The Canadian Press 

  New York Times

John Morris Rankin, 40, Dies;
A Master Cape Breton Fiddler


MONTREAL, Jan. 18 -- John Morris Rankin, a master fiddler and pianist who helped spark a North American renaissance of Celtic music and culture, died on Sunday on his native Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia when his truck skidded off a twisting coastal highway and plunged into the icy sea.  He was 40.  

          Mr. Rankin's son, Michael, and two of his friends survived the accident.  An investigation is under way to determine if Mr. Rankin died from drowning or from impact injuries.  

          From a humble start selling tape cassettes from the trunk of a family car in the late 1980's, Mr. Rankin led his family group, the Rankins, to sell two million records, introducing to a new generation the joys of Gaelic song and music. After a decade that included hundreds of concerts around the world, the five Rankin siblings dissolved the group last summer so they could spend more time with their families.  

          Near dawn on Sunday, Mr. Rankin was driving his son, Michael, and two other boys to a hockey game when he swerved his Toyota 4-Runner to avoid a pile of road salt in the road, the police said. As the truck sailed off a 75-foot high cliff and crashed into a cove, Mr. Rankin shouted to the boys to get out. The boys, unhurt, broke a window and swam ashore. Michael Rankin, 15, then clawed his way up the cliff, a precipice so steep that volunteer firemen who retrieved Mr. Rankin's body later said they could only climb it with ropes. 

          Growing up in the tiny, isolated Cape Breton village of Mabou, Mr. Rankin came to the attention of the outside world in 1973 when he was featured in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary called  "The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler." Time proved the title inaccurate, but the closing scene proved prophetic.  

          In the shot, John Morris Rankin, then 13, walked down a Mabou back road with the legendary Cape Breton fiddler, Dan R. MacDonald.   Conveying the human link of musical traditions between the generations,  Mr. MacDonald, now deceased, placed his hand on the young fiddler's shoulder.  

          In the 1970's, the Gaelic and Highland Scottish traditions preserved by older people in rural Cape Breton were definitely not in fashion, and John Morris routinely hid his fiddle on the way to school.  

          In the late 80's, Mr. Rankin, already a professional musician, organized the Rankin Family, drawing on the Gaelic singing talents of three of his sisters, Cookie, Heather and Raylene, and the guitar and song - writing talents of a brother, Jimmie. They melded pop rhythms and lyrics with ancient Highland Scottish musical traditions, cutting their first album, "The Rankin Family," in 1989. 

With the help of their mother, Kathleen, they managed to sell close to 100,000 albums independently before signing a multi-album deal with EMI in 1992. Renamed the Rankins, the group made six more albums, ending with "Uprooted" last year. They won five Juno Awards, Canada's equivalent of the Grammy. 

The oldest of 12 children, Mr. Rankin was the group's unofficial bandleader and arranger. A quiet man, he played behind his more flamboyant siblings on the front line. But when he stepped into the spotlight, he enchanted audiences with his slow and haunting fiddle solos. 

The Rankins' success drew Cape Breton music into the mainstream, sparking revived interest in Celtic culture. Exposing modern Scotland to this sometimes forgotten Scottish settlement on Canada's eastern fringe, their music prompted many Scots to visit Cape Breton in the 1990's, seeking traditions that have petered out at home but have survived in a corner of North America where every home seems to have a fiddle player and where children learn to dance as soon as they can walk. 

In addition to his son, Mr. Rankin is survived by his wife, Sally, and a daughter, Molly. 












Halifax Herald Ltd.

    'He lived for his family and his music'
    Friends, colleagues remember John Morris Rankin

                      By Stephen Cooke / Entertainment  Reporter

    It was often said of John Morris Rankin that he was as much at home on stage at London's Royal Albert Hall as he was at the West Mabou Community Hall.

    It's also been said the only things that mattered to the Mabou-born performer were his music and his loved ones, and he attended to each with equal devotion.  Rankin's death at age 40 in an auto accident near Margaree Harbour on Sunday  morning sent ripples of shock through the Canadian music community, as those who knew him best remembered his consummate skill on piano and fiddle, and his gentle wit and warm personality.

    He leaves behind his wife Sally, children Michael, 15, and Molly, 13, and a rich  musical legacy that includes taking Cape Breton Celtic culture to the world.

    "That's what he lived for, his family and his music," said guitarist Dave MacIsaac, a  longtime friend who first accompanied Rankin during traditional sets at Halifax's Alexander's and the Thirsty Duck.

    "He was the humblest guy you could ever meet," recalled MacIsaac, who said he felt like he'd lost a brother. 

      "He would never push himself into the spotlight. He was good to chat with, he was always the same."

    But the spotlight did shine on Rankin, especially once the career of his family band The Rankins got rolling with a major record label contract and worldwide concert tours.  

    The group's fiddler Howie MacDonald - a fixture in the band from its start as The Mabou Jig revue in 1989 until its breakup last year - says Rankin kept his brother Jimmy and sisters Raylene, Cookie and Heather grounded, both musically and emotionally.  

    "His dressing room humour was second to none, he really had a dry wit to him,"  MacDonald said. "He always had a comment that would really make you keel  over, go weak in the knees, it was so funny. There was just something about the way his mind processed things. 

    "He had Cape Breton culture really well summed up; the whole music and its history and the way it was played. It captured people emotionally in the way that he played it."

    Stephen MacDonald, the executive producer of The Rankins' first two albums,  remembered John Morris as the quiet force behind the family band. 

    "Quietly and staying largely in the background, John Morris provided the most solid of bases for the musical magic of the Rankin Family," MacDonald said Sunday from his home in Lunenburg.  

    Bassist John Chaisson joined The Rankins in '92, and said that while the sisters' voices and Jimmy's songs were the focal point for listeners, John Morris was the musical centre. 

    "He was so involved with the Rankins, being the oldest, he often took everything on his shoulders," Chaisson said from his Dartmouth home.  

    "He never had a title like music director, but I always considered him to be in that role. He heard everything; he had great ears."  

    Rankin enjoyed the time off after the Rankins disbanded, according to musician/composer and close friend Scott Macmillan, and he was starting to think about where he was going to go next musically.  

    "I was asking him to appear on one of (CBC Radio's) Kitchen Party shows and he was willing to do that," Macmillan recalled. "But he enjoyed life slowing down a little bit, reflecting a little bit, and looked forward to getting out and playing again."  

                      With Greg Guy, entertainment editor