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Cancer takes beloved bluesman, family man Rainer

DANIEL BUCKLEY Citizen Music Writer

One of Tucson’s most beloved musicians, Rainer Ptacek, died yesterday after a 1 1/2-year bout with brain cancer.

He was 46.

Known simply as Rainer (pronounced RYE-ner), the singer/songwriter/bluesman was a master practitioner on the 1939 National steel-bodied guitar – his trademark instrument – and a unique and gifted vocalist.

”He was the culmination of the most beautiful smile, and the most powerful rhythm, and the strongest conviction,” his best friend, local musician Howe Gelb, said today.

”He was a master craftsman in everything he did, whether making music or raising his kids or riding his bike. It’s amazing the number of people who loved him so much for so long. Rainer had a calming effect on everyone around him.”

On Sept. 30, Mr. Ptacek suffered a seizure while at work at the Chicago Store downtown. He was taken to University Medical Center, where tests revealed that his brain tumor had returned and had grown substantially.

But Mr. Ptacek, although enrolled in a hospice home health care program, refused to give up. He returned to the studio to record a new album with his band, Das Combo.

”I’m just counting my blessings,” he said at the time. ”Every day is such a gift, and I’m so lucky to feel so much love.”

He spent his final days at his mother-in-law’s house, visited by family and friends.

Mr. Ptacek was born in East Germany. His parents immigrated to Chicago when he was 5.

In Chicago, he soaked up the sounds of such blues legends as Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Son House. Over the years, his listening tastes broadened to include the whole blues, rock and soul spectrum, techno music and opera.

He moved to Tucson in 1972 and was involved in numerous groups over the years, including Giant Sand, Green on Red, Naked Prey, River Roses and his own band, Das Combo.

Mr. Ptacek also was a prolific and highly respected solo performer, composer and recording artist – earning critical praise here and in Europe. One of his fans was Robert Plant, former lead singer of the rock group Led Zeppelin.

Mr. Ptacek supported himself and his family through his performances and recordings, and as an instrument repairman at the Chicago Store.

”He doesn’t put up anything between him and you,” said a fan, Patricia Wagner, at a benefit concert last month for the bluesman. ”Just the fact that he chose to stay here and be a family man is so great.”

In February 1996, while bicycling to the Chicago Store, Mr. Ptacek blacked out. He awoke three days later at UMC to news that he had an inoperable brain tumor.

Over the next few months, Tucson’s musical community, spearheaded by his longtime friend Gelb, held a series of benefit concerts for their ailing comrade.

With his cancer in remission, Rainer returned to the stage on Dec. 17, 1996, performing an emotional show for 300 doctors, nurses, patients, friends and fans at UMC.

He started the show with ”Funny How Time Slips Away” and received a standing ovation at the end of his set. Medical staff and friends hugged him after the show.

”This is very important to me,” Mr. Ptacek told the crowd. ”As you walk around (UMC), you should take note of the work being done and the people doing it. They all have my gratitude.”

Through the summer, he performed more actively, doing solo shows and guest appearances in Tucson and around the Southwest. His last appearance was Sept. 12 in Silver City, N.M., where he opened for singer/songwriter Greg Brown.

In July, Gelb rallied some prominent musicians for a tribute album, in which Mr. Ptacek played on seven tracks.

Titled ”The Inner Flame,” it featured Gelb, Giant Sand, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, Evan Dando, PJ Harvey, John Parish, The Drovers, LK and Jonathan Richman playing the Tucsonan’s songs.

”I especially want to thank my wife, Patti, for taking care of me all this time,” Mr. Ptacek said before the album was released. ”And all the people here in Tucson who have done so much for me and my family. We feel blessed.”

He is survived by his wife, Patti Keating; sons Gabe, 20, and Rudy, 13; daughter Lily, 2; his mother Inga Ptacek of Chicago; and brother Robert Ptacek of San Francisco.

Funeral arrangements have not been finalized.

A memorial concert is in the works. Donations may be sent to the Charitable Fund for Rainer Ptacek, P.O. Box 13719, Tucson, Ariz. 85732-3719.

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