Obituary: Rainer

Rainer Ptacek, guitarist, singer, songwriter: born East Berlin 7 June 1951; married Patti Keating (two sons, one daughter); died Tucson, Arizona 12 November 1997.

The talent of some musicians can only be measured by the influence they've had on others. The guitarist and singer Rainer had a unique rootsy, melancholic, bluesy style and was a great favourite of Robert Plant, the ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and the country singer Emmylou Harris. His unusual guitar playing, as well as his heartfelt personal lyrics, recorded simply under his first name Rainer, made him a cult figure in Europe.

His father was a Czech soldier who met his German mother in East Berlin. Rainer Ptacek was born in 1951; three years later, his parents sneaked to West Berlin before the wall went up and then emigrated to America in 1956. They settled in Chicago and Rainer attended the Saint Rita High School; he first discovered the blues through the music of white artists. He would later recall "being influenced by English blues bands - Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, the Rolling Stones. Then, of course, you start reading where these songs were taken from and everything kind of pointed back to Robert Johnson."

Drifting west, Rainer ended up in Tucson, Arizona, where he drove cabs and worked as a janitor and cabinet maker. In 1972, he finally found a dream job repairing guitars in a Tucson music shop named, ironically enough, the Chicago Music Shop. He occasionally played with local groups like the rambling, swampy Giant Sand, with Howe Gelb as lead singer.

Soon Rainer was lending his guitar to Gelb's countrified and fictitious spin-off group The Band Of Blacky Ranchette, on albums including Heartland (1986). In 1984, Rainer also formed Das Combo. The Rolling Stone journalist Kurt Loder raved about The Mush Mind Blues album and in 1986, Making Waves, a British label, issued Barefoot Rock With Rainer And Das Combo. Rainer's first visit to the UK the same year was as part of a package tour featuring Giant Sand and The Band Of Blacky Ranchette alongside Das Combo, with seven musicians rotating in various permutations to make up all three bands.

However, Rainer's unique guitar style, using a thumb-pick and playing fingerstyle, was better showcased on 1991's Worried Spirits, a solo effort ("Dazzling", said the Guardian; "Startling", enthused the New Musical Express). He had started incorporating natural sounds and tape loops and, on his second UK visit, really hit a chord with lovers of the languid guitar styles of J.J. Cale and Ry Cooder. He appeared with his trademark Dobro and National steel guitar on Radio 4's Midweek, recorded a soundtrack for The Fire Beetle, a BBC2 feature film, toured the UK with Rory Gallagher and then played throughout Europe, even appearing in Prague and visiting the village home of his ancestors.

In the mid-Eighties, Rainer had hooked up with ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons for some mysterious recordings. Dusted down, given a new sheen and finally released in 1993, The Texas Tapes created something of a stir among the cognoscenti trying to second-guess the identity of Rainer's illustrious sidekick (the Justis Walkert pseudonym previously used by Gibbons was the giveaway). The same year, Robert Plant drafted Rainer for part of the sessions which became the Fate Of Nations album. Rainer's guest appearance was especially impressive on an acoustic cover of the Led Zeppelin classic "Whole Lotta Love", which appeared as a bonus track on the "29 Palms" single.

In 1994, Rainer recorded the haunting, ethereal Nocturnes in his local San Pedro Chapel. Making full use of the setting and a sample pedal, the resulting album chimed in well with ambient and new age tendencies. Things were looking up for Rainer, who in 1995 worked with the US singer-songwriter Victoria Williams; but, in February 1996, he crashed his motorbike in Tucson. He broke his clavicle, but doctors were rather more concerned about a brain scan they'd done; he was diagnosed as having a large, inoperable brain tumour. Following intensive chemotherapy, the cancer was thought to have gone into remission. However, Rainer's medical bills had reached a reported $250,000.

Howe Gelb offered to help and decided to emulate the "Sweet Relief" albums which had already supported performers like Victoria Williams and Vic Chesnutt through trying times, with other artists covering their songs. Once Robert Plant and Atlantic Records came on board, The Inner Flame project snowballed, secured the involvement of Emmylou Harris, Jonathan Richman, and Evan Dando, and was released in the United States in August.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable