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WALL OF FAMERAINER'S POPULARITY IS ABOUT TO SPREAD BEYOND TUCSON'S GRAFFITI ARTISTS

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Although he denies it, Whitley and John Campbell, both solo white bluesmen signed to major labels, may be the examples that convinced Rainer he has a future.

But the biggest motivating factor of all behind his new determination to get his career moving is that in 1991, Rainer turned 40.

"Make no mistake about what I'm saying, the music business still sucks," he says slowly, his blue eyes flashing. "What's changed, though, is my determination to finally do something. I've seen that graffiti too, and I've gotten hardened in the belief that it's time."

Rainer's journey to the basement of the Chicago Music Store began behind the Iron Curtain. Born in East Germany, Rainer crossed over to West Berlin with his family in 1956. Three years later, they immigrated to Chicago. Although he later learned that his boyhood home was only blocks away from a blues club owned by J.B. Lenoir, the story of how Rainer began playing is not the millionth retelling of how yet another white boy from Chicago got the blues.

Rainer found his blues on the radio. Later, while he was a student at Saint Rita High School on Chicago's west side, he'd go to places like the Electric Theatre and the Aragon Ballroom to hear blues players like Charlie Musselwhite, Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield. Heading west with friends going to Colorado, Rainer ended up staying in Tucson in 1972. Landing the first of what would be a lifetime of music-store jobs, he also worked nights as a janitor at the University of Arizona. This wasn't just any janitorial job, however. Somehow, Rainer and a couple of other musicians were assigned to scrub toilets and buff floors in, of all places, the music building.

"We used to hold little janitor's concerts in the theatre there--one guy onstage banging away at a piano, the rest of us out in the audience in jumpsuits applauding and all at three o'clock in the morning. And then there was the big pipe organ downstairs which we used to crank up."

Although the "real money" came from his night work at the UofA, Rainer's music-store job provided him with the connections to get playing gigs. Much of what now looks like innate wisdom was instilled during the very first job he landed as a musician in Tucson.

"One day this guy comes into the music store with a guitar to fix. He was kind of a schlocky, Las Vegas entertainer who called himself Roy Clayborne. He said he was Wayne Newton's understudy," Rainer says without a smile. "He did Johnny Cash impersonations, told crude jokes--the kinds of thing you'd expect from a guy like that. Had a midget brother who played drums in the band, too. He said, `Why don't you come down to the club, boy, and bring your GEE-tar?' Well, he hired me and we toured Oklahoma. When we got back, he replaced me with a keyboard player. Whoever was cheaper is better, was his theory of musicians. Years later, I actually saw him on the Tonight Show. He had shaved off all his hair and had a heavy mustache. He was always into gimmicks. People would say `Roy Clayborne' and someone would go, `Oh, yeah, he's the bald guy.'"

After his brush with this lounge act, Rainer spent time working at Lear Jet as a cabinetmaker and even wrung out a few rags at the Octopus Car Wash. Around this time, he also began to play with Billy Sedlmayer, a brilliant Tucson musician who's spent more time in prison than playing (he's currently in the Arizona State Prison in Tucson), and future Naked Prey guitarist Dave Seger.

This embryonic group found its direction when a talented, curly headed singer-songwriter from Scranton, Pennsylvania, named Howe Gelb moved west. Calling themselves the Giant Sandworms, the members of the group worked up a set of originals, Richard Thompson covers and Sixties soul knockoffs and began opening shows for bands like X.

For Rainer though, the Sandworms (who've since metamorphosed into just Giant Sand) were too pop for his tastes. In 1981, he quit and began woodshedding his solo blues act. He also began forming a new blues-based electric band. In 1983, Das Combo played its first gig at the key Tucson venue of that time, the now-extinct bad steak house and new-wave music mecca, Nino's.

Along the way, Rainer had married Patti Keating and started a family. His two sons, Rudy and Gabe, are now 7 and 14.

Rainer says he has no regrets about the years he's spent as a relative unknown in Tucson. Record deal or not, he still has no plans to leave the city, which suits his family and his many fans there just fine. But his associations with Gibbons and Chelew have given him new confidence. And there's a new look in his eye that says looking forward to the future.

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Robert Baird