Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
We won’t know the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for many years, not least because they haven’t stopped piling up. Bodily sickness, mental illness, financial loss—everyone seems to have been afflicted differently, and the effects on our medical, political, social, and economic systems compound those individual misfortunes. New variants, vaccine updates, and long COVID are still creating unexpected problems, and in this grotesquely abnormal situation, our leaders have given us little choice but to try to live life as “normally” as we can. For many of us, that isn’t normal at all.
COVID nearly took everything from beloved Chicago blues and boogie-woogie pianist Erwin Helfer. But not only did he survive, he’s also returned to his music and teaching career in his 86th year. Let’s start from the beginning, though, to emphasize Helfer’s extraordinary longevity and influence.
Erwin Helfer was born January 20, 1936, in Chicago, and when he was very young, his father used to throw weekend music parties. “He was a people person,” Helfer told Blues Blast Magazine in 2020. “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.”
At age five or so, Helfer began picking out melodies on a piano his father had bought. “I wanted a piano, and my dad was a practical joker,” he recalled in his Blues Blast interview. “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 began developing his own idiosyncratic style, he says, because he didn’t have the patience to memorize existing songs note for note. When he was 12, his family moved to Glencoe, and he eventually attended New Trier High School in neighboring Winnetka. In school he fell for what he’s called “the sadness, the darkness and the joy” in blues and boogie-woogie music, after discovering New Orleans musicians George Lewis (clarinet) and Bunk Johnson (trumpet).
Helfer also made his professional debut in high school, playing with blues singer Estelle “Mama” Yancey, the widow of influential early boogie-woogie pianist Jimmy Yancey. “She was a holy terror—and a good friend!” he told Blues Blast. “She could swear and drink more than any man on this earth!” Yancey tapped him to fill in for the legendary Little Brother Montgomery for a gig at Indiana University.
“Little Brother didn’t want to do it,” Helfer said. “I really hadn’t played in public at that point, but I made the trip, and, apparently, it was some type of success.” The two of them continued working together frequently until Yancey died in 1986 at age 90, and Helfer sometimes did double duty as her booking agent. Their years together would also inspire one of Helfer’s signature compositions, “Stella.”
Erwin Helfer performs “Stella” for Chicago Tonight in 2016.
While Helfer was still a teenager, modernist composer Bill Russell took him under his wing. Russell was also a violinist, music historian, producer, and record-store owner—but most important for Helfer, he was a jazz historian, having contributed three essays to the milestone 1939 book Jazzmen, which chronicled the New Orleans musicians who’d helped birth the genre. Through Russell, Helfer would meet players of incredible historical significance, including pianist Glover Compton (who played with Jelly Roll Morton), drummer Warren “Baby” Dodds, and gospel goddess Mahalia Jackson. “He took me down to her apartment when she was a ‘hair burner’—a beautician,” Helfer told Blues Blast. “She lived on 37th and Prairie.”
When Russell moved to New Orleans, Helfer followed. In the mid-50s he enrolled as a psychology major at Tulane University, but he was really there for the music. He soaked up the sounds of bands at parades and funerals and studied Crescent City pianists such as Leon T. “Archibald” Gross and Professor Longhair. When Helfer met Professor Longhair, the future legend was working as a custodian at a small record store, even though he’d already released what would prove to be his biggest success, “Bald Head,” and his classic single “Tipitina” had come out in 1953.
Helfer would continue meeting early practitioners of blues and jazz—including trumpeter-cornetist De De Pierce and his wife, pianist-singer Billie—and this would open more doors for him. In 1956, Helfer was inspired to start his own label, Tone Records, to help the artists he’d met. Tone’s sole release was the 1957 compilation Primitive Piano, with Billie Pierce, Doug Suggs, James Robinson, and the Saint Louis-based Speckled Red. It was recognized immediately as an important historical document, and Chicago-based label the Sirens (founded by Steve Dolins, who’d been taking lessons with Helfer) reissued it in 1975 and again in 2003.
Helfer moved back to Chicago in the 60s and earned his bachelor’s in music theory at the American Conservatory of Music. (He’s always been as big a fan of Bach as he was the blues, but by his own reckoning he’s not wired to play classical.) He later moved on to a master’s degree in piano pedagogy from Northeastern Illinois University, and his students helped refresh his ears. “I enrolled because I’d gotten bored listening to myself,” he told DownBeat magazine earlier this year.
Helfer’s career started picking up steam in the 1960s. He gave a young Paul Butterfield piano lessons. He played harpsichord on Nick Gravenites’s proto-psychedelic 1965 single “Drunken Boat” b/w “Whole Lotta Soul,” where Gravenites is billed as “Nick the Greek” (the record also features harmonica from Butterfield and horn freak-outs by Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell, soon to form the Art Ensemble of Chicago). In 1970 he appeared on the Chess Records album Moogie Woogie, trying out new synthesizer technology—which he hated. He also played with guitarist Big Joe Williams, keyboardist Jimmy Walker, and folk singer Barbara Dane.
In 1976 Helfer released the now-classic compilation Heavy Timbre: Chicago Boogie Piano through the Sirens Records. It attempts to re-create the feel of a “rent party” with tunes by heavy blues pianists such as Blind John Davis, Sunnyland Slim, and Willie Mabon. Helfer also put out his first solo album, On the Sunny Side of the Street, for the Flying Fish label in 1979. In the 70s he also toured Europe with a killer lineup featuring Chicago guitarists Eddie Taylor and Homesick James and Chicago harmonica player Big John Wrencher.
In the 80s, Helfer started a band with harmonica player and singer Billy Branch and guitarist Pete Crawford. Crawford was also Helfer’s business partner in the new Red Beans label, which released albums by the likes of Branch, Mama Yancey, Sunnyland Slim, Johnny “Big Moose” Walker, Blind John Davis, and Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers. During that decade he also cemented a fruitful musical partnership with saxophonist Clark Dean that lasted till Dean’s death in 2017.
In 2001, the Sirens released Helfer’s album I’m Not Hungry but I Like to Eat—Blues!, which earned him a nomination for “Comeback Blues Album of the Year” at the W.C. Handy Awards in 2003. He continued to release albums, and he gigged steadily, holding down residencies at Katerina’s, Barrelhouse Flat, Township, and most recently the Hungry Brain on Belmont near Western, where he was still playing every Tuesday right up till the pandemic. He’s also appeared at the Chicago Blues Festival as often as not since the mid-80s.
Helfer still lives on the street where he settled in 1968, a gentrifying stretch of North Magnolia Avenue near DePaul University. His block was given the honorary name Erwin Helfer Way in 2006. “I think they put that up because I used to ride my bike—that’s how I used to get to my job on the North Side—and after a few drinks, I didn’t know where I lived,” Helfer explained to the Chicago Tribune earlier this year. “So they put that street sign up for me so I could find out where I was going.”
The pandemic proved doubly devastating for Helfer. “At least two of the things I love most—playing music and teaching—were strictly unable for me to do,” he told the Tribune. He didn’t catch COVID in the frightening initial months of its spread, but he began slipping into a paranoid and depressive place. “I had no digital skills and couldn’t manage my bank account at all, because I always just rode my bike down to the bank, put in my money, or took out my money, and mailed all my bills. This I couldn’t do. I started being dysfunctional. Some of my friends caught onto it quickly. They did research into what was the best hospital and got me into Rush University Medical Center. When I went there, I was really in bad shape.”
Over a period of six weeks, Helfer underwent 11 sessions of electroconvulsive therapy—yes, that’s “shock treatment,” but it’s not violent anymore, no matter what you saw in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “I was scheduled for 12, but I didn’t need the last one,” Helfer told DownBeat. In his Tribune interview, he sang the treatment’s praises. “It was the best therapy that I could’ve had,” he said. “I don’t know how it works, but it wasn’t painful.”
When Helfer got home from the hospital, though, he caught COVID. “[Singer and friend] Katherine Davis, when I moved back in the house, was staying here, taking care of me,” he explained to the Tribune. “But she was always outside the house, going to the South Side, where she lives. She got COVID, and I got it from her. During that period, I was sick, but she was a lot sicker. I ended up taking care of her—which was fine, because she offered right away to take care of me. She’s been a good friend for a long time. And we both have a lot of dirt on each other.”
Davis explained her motives to the Trib. “There wasn’t anybody to help take care of him, so they were talking about putting him in a nursing home,” she recalled. “And I said, ‘No. I can’t let that happen to him.’”
Helfer recovered, thankfully, and in summer 2021 he gradually began performing again, mostly at the Hideout and the Hungry Brain (though he’s had to stop riding his bike to gigs). He’s back to teaching too, albeit with a much smaller complement of students. In January 2022, he performed at the Old Town School of Folk Music to celebrate his 86th birthday and the release of the 2021 album Celebrate the Journey (once again on the Sirens label). Last year he also released an instructional book, Blues Piano and How to Play It—and if anyone would know, it’s him. Helfer is a fighter, and Chicago blues is richer for it.
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.