Boogie Woogie - Erwin Helfer Turns 80
Erwin Helfer, a Chicago boogie-woogie innovator and master, has been creating his own sound for over seven decades. On February 6, Helfer will be celebrating his 80th birthday at the Old Town School of folk music along with many of his friends who will pay homage to this Chicago musical treasure. Helfer grew up on the South Side of Chicago and wasn’t necessarily in a musical family. His parents sang in a barbershop-kind of harmony around the house but they weren’t exactly musicians. “I remember when I was about 5 years old, I decided I wanted a piano. When my mother and I went out grocery shopping one day we arrived back at the house and there was a Wurlitzer sitting in the living room,” says Helfer. “That’s the way my dad did things and I think because I wanted it, I got it.” Although he wasn’t sure exactly why he wanted a piano at such a young age, he just felt he had to have one. “I must have wanted it because I heard someone playing it.” He began taking private lessons at 6, and took them off and on throughout his younger years. Although he had a passion for playing the piano, he found it very difficult to learn to read music. He would sit in his lessons with his teachers and watch and listen to his teacher play the songs and try to figure out the tunes and memorize them on the spot. Later on, he was able to learn how to read music enough to get into the American Conservatory of Music as a piano major, but ended up switching his major to music theory because he was still having to memorize all of the required pieces. “In order for me to complete the major I would need to take an ensemble class and play with other instruments, and I knew I could never read fast enough to succeed, so I switched my major to music theory,” he says. During his early years, Helfer’s family moved to Glencoe and he attended New Trier High School—this is when he first started to develop his passion for boogie-woogie blues and New Orleans-style jazz. During that time he met Bobby Wright, who was a musician and had an interesting collection of New Orleans jazz and boogie-woogie recordings. After hearing the recordings, Helfer made it a point to just get out and meet as many of these musicians still around in Chicago. He became friends with Little Brother Montgomery, Sunnyland Slim, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Mama Yancey and many others. He also became very good friends with the legendary New Orleans drummer who played with Louis Armstong and revolutionized jazz drumming—Warren “Baby” Dodds. “Baby Dodds was a very good friend of mine. He had a stroke at the time so he didn’t play drums anymore, so I used to go down and see him when he lived on South Parkway Drive, which is now Martin Luther King Drive.” Because of all of these experiences, boogie-woogie piano playing became his passion, and as he listened to the recordings and heard the legends perform, he began to develop his own distinct style even though he didn’t initially intend to do that. “I think you go in with the idea of not developing your own style, and if you’re lucky enough, you will have your own style,” Helfer says. During that same time period, Helfer met another person who would become a major influence—Bill Russell, whom he met at Bobby Wrights’ house. Russell wrote the first chapters of the book Jazzmen, which focused on boogie blues and Louis Armstong. “Russell was probably the biggest influence on my life because he took me down to the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s apartment around 36th and Prairie. At that time, she was a beautician and she recorded for Apollo Records.” Helfer began going to some church services where she was performing. He was able to hangout there and meet a lot of the older New Orleans musicians still in the city after they moved here from the South during the early twentieth century. Following his formal schooling, Helfer never planned to be a professional musician; he was content to teach at two different schools, Park Forest Conservatory, which was a neighborhood school and also at the Lake County Music Center in Waukegan. That all changed when he visited a studio with Joe Williams, a nine-string guitar player Helfer was hanging around with, and they recorded his first album. “Joe and I went to this studio to do some recording. It was a real honor for Joe to believe in me that much. When we got the studio the owner, Eli, who was also the engineer, he was surprised to see this young white kid (who) could play this stuff. Eli said if he released it he would be glad to pay us for it. It did come out years later on the Jewel Label, but I can’t remember the name of it.” Although he played a few gigs during high school in the Highwood area, his first real steady gig was in the 1970s when vocalist Barbara Dane needed a piano player—and he got the call. She was playing a place called Orphans on Lincoln Avenue. After the performance, the owner, Danny Johnston, liked it so much that he gave Helfer a Monday night blues session at the club. Because he had been hanging out for years, Helfer knew all of these famous Chicago blues players and started inviting them up to the North Side to jam, including artists such as Eddie Taylor, One Arm John Lyncher, Blind John Davis, S.P. Leary and many others. “Paul Butterfield brought ‘white blues’ to Old Town, but I brought all of the ‘black blues’ players with me to the North Side,” Helfer says. His regular drummer at the time was S.P. Leary, who played in the band with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Before he knew it he had an underground following and ended up on Channel 11 for a PBS special. During that same time, Helfer approached another club owner, Jay Jamms, who had a club farther up Lincoln Avenue, about having live music. There was a piano at the club, which was sort of a motorcycle bar and he and S.P Leary started playing regularly there. He also noticed another bar with a piano in the window. One of the owners was Bob Heckel who eventually opened up B.L.U.E.S Bar on Halsted Street. “Bob Heckel always says I started him in (the) business.” While Helfer was performing and bringing the Chicago blues to the North Side of Chicago, he met a photographer/musician, Clark Dean. Dean was a soprano sax player who saw Helfer on the Channel 11 TV special. He and a friend came to Helfer’s house with some jazz charts for Helfer to read through and play. At that time, Helfer wasn’t a fan of jazz standards. “I thought it was hotel music, but then they put the charts in front of songs like, “I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Georgia On My Mind” and others, and I thought they were really good.” After that meeting, Helfer began to seriously listen to all of the great jazz players. He and Clark started playing jazz gigs around town and his name grew on both the jazz and blues scenes. Since then, Helfer has performed throughout the world with his very distinct “soul” piano style. He has recorded several albums on Sirens Records that is owned by Steven Dollins, a longtime Helfer fan. “He first heard me at the University of Chicago Folk Festival when I accompanied Mama Yancey and asked me if I taught lessons,” Helfer recalls. “He took some lessons from me, and from that a great friendship developed. Years later he mentioned that he wanted to help me the way I helped a lot of other people, so he set up a recording session and the Sirens Record Label was born.” Helfer was the first artist on the label. “I always joke with him about how I am glad to help him to go broke.” Sirens Records now has over 27 recordings in its catalog, and on six of them Helfer is included on under his own name or as a member of a group. To celebrate another milestone in Helfer’s life, Sirens Records and the Old Town School of Folk will be presenting an 80th birthday party on February 6 with a concert featuring Helfer and many of his lifelong musical friends. When asked what the audience can expect to hear, Helfer says, “I think we are going to do the whole works. I thought I would feature myself as a soloist, a composer, accompanist and an ensemble player.” Joining him that evening will be vocalist Katherine Davis, saxophonist John Brumbach and pianist Barrelhouse Chuck among many others. It is safe to say Helfer has made a very deep impression on the music scene in Chicago, and though turning 80 is a milestone, he isn’t about to slow down. He is determined to keep playing and teaching music for many years to come and always in his own unique style.