The Windy City has been ground zero for innovators on the keyboards since founding father Leroy Carr first sat down at the 88s in the 1920s and invented what’s considered to be the Chicago blues piano sound. It’s a tradition that’s continued through the efforts of a who’s who of talented musicians who’ve become international names.
From Big Maceo Merriweather to Pinetop Perkins, from Memphis Slim to Otis Spann, from Sunnyland Slim to Barrelhouse Chuck, the torch has been passed down from generation to generation. But there’s one keyboard wizard who’s bridged the lives of many of those stars, but managed to fly under the radar despite possessing comparable talents.
Even though he might not be as well-known as the others, blues, boogie-woogie and jazz pianist Erwin Helfer has been a favorite son among Chicago music lovers for the better part of seven decades. And even though he was about to turn 84 as this article was being written, he’s just as vibrant a player today as he was when he made his debut in the very early ‘50s.
Born Jan. 20, 1936 and raised on the Windy City’s South Shore before moving to the suburb of Glencoe at 12, Erwin is a small man with a large presence as both a performer and teacher. His double-fisted approach separates him from the crowd as he delivers runs that are both lyrical and fluid while being both highly percussive and occasionally dissonant, too.
An extremely modest man whose gratitude flows like a river when paid a compliment, he’s more comfortable heaping praise on others than accepting it for himself – even though he’s earned a lifetime award winner from the prestigious Jazz Institute of Chicago, a list that includes heavyweights Ornette Coleman, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry and many others.
Erwin’s a refreshing breath of fresh air in a world full of egomaniacs –especially so when you consider that two of the greatest music critics of the 20th Century considered Helfer a one-of-a-kind talent.
Pete Welding, a lifelong contributor to Down Beat magazine and one of the preeminent blues historians of all time, praised Erwin’s mastery of “the rhythmic and melodic subtleties” of blues piano stylings. And Nat Hentoff, longtime columnist for New York’s Village Voice and a contributor to both Playboy magazine and the Wall Street Journal was equally effusive, once writing that “Helfer adds new lyrical dimension to Duke Ellington’s ‘In a Sentimental Mood,’ while his ‘Swanee River Boogie’ made me feel I was having my own rent party.”
Despite the accolades, Erwin remains grounded, more apt to draw attention to the flaws he perceives in his own performance rather than acceptkind words from others. He started playing piano at age five or six. He developed his own unique playing style, he says, because he didn’t have the patience or memory to learn anything note-for-note.
“I wanted a piano, and my dad was a practical joker,” he told Blues Blast recently. “When my mom and I went out shopping, we came back and there was a little Wurlitzer piano sitting in the living room. My mom was surprised. She didn’t even know about it.”
Helfer fell in love with what he’s termed “the sadness, the darkness and the joy” of blues and boogie-woogie while attending New Trier High School in Glencoe, a small North Shore village that’s become the wealthiest in suburban Chicago. His love for New Orleans jazz came about because of the spirituality he felt in the music after discovering clarinet player George Lewis and trumpeter Bunk Johnson.
“I met a piano player in school, Bobby Wright was his name, and he had all these recordings of New Orleans jazz and Chicago blues and boogie and stride piano,” Erwin recalls. “That’s where I first started hearing this stuff. Before that, I was picking up melodies by Frankie Laine and Johnny Ray, a woman piano player called Del Wood and an English ragtime player, Winifred Atwell, and play in a few keys.
“But when Bobby played this stuff, it really resonated with me. My dad would take me places, and I made it a point to go out and meet some of the black New Orleans musicians who’d moved to Chicago.
“He was a people person. He played washboard bass and jug, and he did a good job at it. I had a couple of ‘play’ uncles: Charlie, who played ragtime piano, and Si, who played clarinet, and they’d all get together and jam at the house. They sounded like an old black skiffle band — (a styling that fused jazz, blues and folk, began in the South in the ‘20s and was extremely popular in Britain in the ‘50s) – although they didn’t know it!”
Helfer’s first true forays into the blues world came after befriending William Russell — someone who’d eventually become a major force in both the worlds of jazz and classical music. They met at Wright’s while still in school. Russell grew up to be a major influence to avant garde classical composer John Cage because of his work in percussive musical composition, and Russell was influenced by him, too.
“Bill was a very unusual guy – to say the least,” Erwin recalls.
As their friendship grew, Russell began taking Helfer on trips to the South Side, where he brought him face-to-face with some of the most important musicians in jazz and blues. He later relocated to New Orleans, where his work through a grant from the Ford Foundation laid the groundwork for what would become the Tulane University Jazz Archives, a treasure trove for music researchers around the globe.
“He introduced me to Glover Compton,” Helfer remembers fondly. A keyboard player who backed both Alberta Hunter and Jelly Roll Morton in the ‘20s he also was a longtime member of Ada “Bricktop” Smith’s house band, the Palm Beach Six – a group that often included Sidney Bechet, at her popular nightclub, Chez Bricktop, in Paris.
“He introduced me to Mahalia Jackson and took me down to her apartment when she was a ‘hair burner’ – a beautician. She lived on 37th and Prairie. Glover lived right down the street. And he introduced me to Baby Dodds (considered to be the best New Orleans drummer prior to the jazz era).”
Although he can’t recall how today, he also fell under the spell of Cripple Clarence Lofton, the keyboard player who recorded with Big Bill Broonzy in the ‘30s, as well as boogie-woogie pianist Jimmy Yancey, who influenced Meade “Lux” Lewis, Pinetop Smith and Albert Ammons, as well as Jimmy’s vocalist wife Estelle. Known as “Mama,” she hired Erwin for his first professional gig, long after her husband died in 1951.
“She was a holy terror – and a good friend!” Helfer exclaims. “She could swear and drink more than any man on this earth!”
After realizing Erwin’s love for the music and its creators – as well as being well aware of the risks he was taking in the South Side neighborhoods in his pursuits, she told him: “God always looks after children and fools!”
After graduation, Helfer moved to New Orleans – “allegedly,” he insists, “to go to Tulane – and very allegedly.”
Purportedly enrolled as a psychology major, Erwin spent most of his time on the rampant music scene, listening to marching bands, going to parades and funerals and studying the piano stylings of local legends Leon “Archibald” Gross and Professor Longhair, whom he met for the first time when the Crescent City legend was working as a janitor in a record store even though his classic song “Tipitina” was already making the rounds as a 78-rpm single.
“I can’t say that I really knew him,” Helfer notes, “but he was obviously a really poor black dude who was sweeping the floor – and it really wasn’t anything like Barnes & Noble, if you know what I mean. It was more of a shack or something like that.”
He also become close to Billie Pierce — a vocalist who began her career touring with Ma Rainey — and her trumpet-playing husband, De De, who’d spend his later years as a member of the Preservation Dance Hall Band.
Helfer returned to Chicago and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in music theory from American Conservatory of Music and a master’s degree in piano pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching) from Northeastern Illinois University.
“But I was by no means a ‘scholar,’” he says. “I was always a bad sight reader. I took two years of a piano major and just memorized everything. But I realized I could never cut it in an ensemble class because I couldn’t read fast enough. So I switched my major to theory.
“If I had my druthers, I’d rather be able to play the big Bach organ works or the Well-Tempered Clavier because Bach is my hero. But I’m not wired that way!”
Helfer’s first gigs on the blues scene in Chicago came after Mama Yancey enlisted him to replace Little Brother Montgomery as her keyboard player. A former vaudeville dancer-turned-singer who eventually became a four-time Blues Music Awards nominee, she was headed for a gig at Indiana University.
“Little Brother didn’t want to do it,” Erwin says, adding: “I really hadn’t played in public at that point, but I made the trip, and, apparently, it was some type of success. I’m sure if I heard the tapes today, though, I’m sure they’d be pretty horrible. Fortunately, there aren’t any.”
The pair worked together frequently until Mama’s passing in 1986 at age 90, and Helfer served as her booking agent for her frequent appearances at the popular University of Chicago Folk Festival as well as gigs at Elsewhere On Lincoln, one of the first blues clubs on the city’s North Side, where Erwin also headlined as a band leader, too.
Helfer also made an abortive attempt as a label owner in 1956, launching Tone Records and releasing Primitive Piano, an LP that featured Billie Pierce and pianists Speckled Red, James Robinson and Doug Suggs. The material was re-released in an expanded form by The Sirens Records in 2003 minus one Speckled Red track that appeared on the first-ever release by the Delmark imprint.
He spent most of the ‘60s and ‘70s serving double duty, working with Mama as well as in a partnership with fellow keyboard player Jimmy Walker, who was active from the ‘20s to the late ‘90s in a career in which he backed Homesick James, Billy Boy Arnold, Lonnie Johnson and first-generation bluesman Big Joe Williams. The pair hooked up after being introduced by critic Pete Welding, who was one of Helfer’s longtime friends.
Despite his longevity – and being a memorable character who was often surrounded by clouds of talcum powder, which he used to keep his hands dry in his later years, Walker didn’t set foot into a recording studio until 1964 when he and Erwin traded licks on Rough and Ready for Testament Records and then again in 1974, when they recorded Blues and Boogie-Woogie Piano: Duets and Solo for Flying Fish.
It was a busy period for Erwin. He toured Europe in an all-star lineup that included legendary Chicago guitarists Eddie Taylor and Homesick James as well as Big John Wrencher — a longtime fixture on Maxwell Street and an immensely talented harmonica player who still played with big tone despite having lost an arm in an automobile accident – and made his debut as a bandleader came with Boogie Piano Chicago Style on the German Big Bear label in ’75, followed closely by Heavy Timbre — Chicago Boogie Piano for The Sirens Records, which simulated a house rent party and also featured Walker, Blind John Davis, Sunnyland Slim and Willie Mabon.
“In retrospect, I wasn’t thrilled by my playing on any of it,” he insists. “But I feel that way about everything I heard. I enjoy the process of doing it, but I’m not all that crazy about it when I listen back.
“It’s gotten me traction though. I’ve got my own style – I know that. Somebody recently heard two measures on the radio and instantly knew it was me. But I never tried to develop a style. I say to my students: Don’t worry about that – just worry about playing.
“I went into my favorite Chinese buffet the other day, and the cashier asked me if I was a pastor because I bring all sorts of people in there. I told her: ‘No, I play blues and jazz piano – I’ll bring you a copy of it.’
“She puts it on the sound system softly in the background. I came in the next day, and she was still playing the same thing. I don’t know how the hell they can stand on listening to that thing all day long!”
Erwin’s run with Jimmy Walker came to an end after about twenty years, Helfer says, “because he wanted to turn it into a comedy act, but he just wasn’t that funny.”
Walker subsequently formed a band with a young Billy Branch and guitarist Pete Crawford, who was also Erwin’s partner in another label, the fledgling Red Beans Records. Before selling the company to the Evidence Music group, they released 14 discs in the ‘80s beginning with Mama Yancey’s Maybe I’ll Cry. Others featured Sunnyland Slim, Branch and the first generation of his Sons of Blues, keyboard players Johnny “Big Moose” Walker and Blind John Davis, and guitarists Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers and Steve Freund.
Helfer released one solo CD on Red Beans during that period and two more in an ensemble with vocalist Angela Brown, drummer Odie Payne Jr., a founding father of Chicago blues percussion, and soprano saxophonist Clark Dean.
Dean had called Erwin out of the blue one day after seeing him perform on WTTW-TV, the local Public Broadcasting channel in Chicago, Erwin recalls. “He and a drummer came over to the house to jam.
“Clark was a great, great person and a wonderful sax player. He brought along a fake book (musical charts) with all kinds of standards – and, at that time, I didn’t like standards. I thought they were really boring, bourgeois cocktail stuff that didn’t do anything for me.
“He put up a chord sheet for ‘I’ve Got It Bad (And I’m Feeling Good)’ – and I really started liking that. And then I started liking an instrument I really had disdain for: the saxophone!”
The friendship that began that afternoon initiated a musical partnership that breathed new life in music Erwin previously abhorred for the better part of 30 years until Dean left us at age 91 a few years ago.
Since the early 2000s, Erwin has recorded exclusively for The Sirens, which renewed operations after a long absence. His first release — I’m Not Hungry But I Like to Eat, aided by tenor sax player John Brumbach — earned a 2003 Blues Music Award nomination for comeback album of the year. He followed it with 8 Hands on 88 Keys, sharing billing with Sunnyland Slim, Barrelhouse Chuck and Pinetop Perkins.
Albums with saxophonist Skinny Williams (St. James Infirmary), blues vocalist Katherine Davis and a young Lurrie Bell (Erwin Helfer Way) and, most recently Last Call, a disc that included contributions from Brumbach and Williams as well as Barrelhouse Chuck, have followed.
Although Chuck’s best known as a student of Sunnyland, Little Brother, Pinetop and others, he also worshipped Erwin, always insisting that he wanted to bring Helfer along for a trip to Spain and Sweden before finally achieving his goal on what would be his final tour before dying of prostate cancer near Christmas in 2016, four months after that album’s release.
Barrelhouse probably would have left us much earlier if Erwin hadn’t jumped into action and rushed him to a hospital at the end of that Swedish tour, literally at the brink of death, completely exhausted because of his illness and the rigors of laying it all out on the road.
“Chuck was a very sweet man,” Helfer says. “One time, we were playing together at the Chicago Cultural Center, and he walked by when I was playing ‘In a Sentimental Mood,’ and tears were coming out of his eyes. And he did the same thing to me when he played a slow blues. Tears were coming out of my eyes.
“He gave me the longest hug I’ve ever had the last time I saw him. We were great friends. He wanted me to play first at his memorial service, which I did.
“When I went to see him when he was dying, there were a lot of people in that room. Chuck was slanderous,” he laughs. “He’d said bad things about everybody there from time to time (chuckles). But they were all there to say goodbye. Everybody loved him.”
Helfer has always been an eager piano teacher. As an instructor, he conducted seminars at American Conservatory of Music, and he also taught a one-semester course in blues piano at Chicago’s Columbia College.
He devotes a great deal of his time today to about a dozen private students, teaching them to play by ear at first and then introducing them to theory and chart reading as their skills advance, and using a reconditioned 1890s Steinway grand piano handed down from an aunt as well as a lightweight Yamaha P6-series keyboards during lessons.
“I used to be really good with children,” he says. “But adults and a couple of high school kids have taken their place. They say that they want to play what I do and not use music (charts). So we do that. But I teach them both ways – with charts and chords and by ear, too.
“And I also play ensemble with them — with them backing me up on one chorus and me doing it for them on the next.”
For the past two years, Erwin’s held a regular Tuesday night gig at the Hungry Brain, a popular jazz joint on Chicago’s Northwest Side, beginning solo and now accompanied by his regular band, which includes a sax player, upright bassist and drummer.
“It’s a really nice, short gig,” he says, “from 7:30 to nine. It keeps me off the street – and I need to be kept off the street! And it’s close enough to my house that I can ride my bike!”
If you’re heading to the Chicago Blues Festival, Erwin will be returning to the stage there this summer – something he looks forward to every year. At 84, his dream is to play a solo gig on grand piano on the main stage and do what he always does: Have a conversation with the audience while he plays.
“I know they’ll be with me all the way,” he insists. “And I’ll be grateful!”
Check out where Erwin’s playing next – or sign up for piano lessons – by visiting his website: www.erwinhelfer.com