It’s been six years since boogie-woogie pianist Erwin Helfer has been able to grace the Chicago Blues Festival with his music, and that’s too long. At age 82, Helfer may be Chicago’s last living representative of a tradition whose roots extend back to the late 1800s—boogie-woogie peaked from the 1920s till the ’40s and survived the subsequent “blues revival” era alongside better-known (and louder) blues subgenres associated with the amplified postwar style. Despite its rich legacy, in more recent decades it’s too often been reduced to a museum piece.
Born in Chicago in 1936, Helfer was introduced to jazz and blues in his teens by a pianist named Bobby Wright, and he soon began exploring the city in order to meet as many surviving blues artists as he could. He later dug deeper into the music under the tutelage of jazz historian William Russell, and after moving to New Orleans to attend Tulane, he studied Crescent City keyboard masters such as Leon T. “Archibald” Gross, James Booker, Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd (aka Professor Longhair), and Billie Pierce. (Helfer also got to know her husband, trumpeter De De Pierce.) By this time, he’d taken traditional blues and boogie-woogie piano as his life’s calling; in his early 20s he recorded Billie Pierce, Doug Suggs (a fellow Chicagoan), Rufus “Speckled Red” Perryman, and James “Bat the Hummingbird” Robinson for the compilation album Primitive Piano, which he released in 1957 on his own Tone label. It’s since become a classic, and from the moment it came out it was an essential historical document—among other things, it’s the only recording Suggs ever made. Chicago label the Sirens reissued it in 2003.
Sun 6/10, 11 AM, Front Porch Stage
Helfer made his own first recordings for the Cobra label in 1957, backing Delta guitarist Big Joe Williams, but they weren’t released at the time. That same year, he laid down some tracks with singer Estelle “Mama” Yancey, widow of pianist Jimmy Yancey—an early step in the development of their musical partnership and friendship, which lasted until her death in 1986. In 1983 Helfer made a full-length album with her, Maybe I’ll Cry, and he finally released those ’57 sessions on 2016’s Last Call.
Meanwhile, Helfer continued to work alongside and learn from the living titans of Chicago blues piano, including Little Brother Montgomery, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Walker, and Blind John Davis. His first recording to see release, a duo LP with Walker titled Rough and Ready (Testament), arrived in 1964, and ten years later he dropped another collaboration with Walker on the Flying Fish label. By 1975, when Helfer released Boogie Piano Chicago Style (Big Bear), he’d established himself as a worthy inheritor of the tradition as well an imaginative stylist who enriched his work with original ideas as well as influences borrowed from a wide variety of sources—jazz, pop, European classical.
Despite Helfer’s old-school aesthetics (“I have trouble with loud guitars,” he told John Litweiler in 1993), he’s never been a purist of the “moldy fig” variety. Through the years, his recordings have included not just his beloved blues, boogie-woogie, and stride but also the Cajun-flavored country tune “Jambalaya,” the pop chestnut “These Foolish Things,” Horace Silver’s soul-jazz classic “The Preacher,” and Thelonious Monk’s signature “Blue Monk.” The 1986 album Erwin Helfer Plays Chicago Piano includes another Monk reference (a sly quote from “Misterioso” in his own “After Work It’s Just Me and a Empty Chair Blues”), calliope-style left-hand oompahing that adds puckish jollity to a ballad version of “C.C. Rider,” and a sacrilegious boogie bass line slipped into the revered jazz standard “Take the ‘A’ Train”—all excellent examples of the ways he can combine his reverence for tradition with a joyful sense of exploration.
Helfer’s music and his onstage personality are of a piece—ebullient yet deepened by autumnal tranquility, rich with unflappable dignity and easygoing humor. (After a gig for an inattentive crowd at a touristy Navy Pier bistro, he remarked, “I don’t know whether it stuck on the wall or fell off.”) He provides an increasingly necessary reminder that the Chicago blues tradition consists of much more than screaming guitars and wailing harmonicas. v