Roosevelt Sykes and the Honeydrippers

Delmark DL-642


Erwin Helfer

Red Beans RB 010

Even in its heyday, the early 50s, the music popularly known as “Chicago blues”–traditional country blues laid over a citified rhythm section and augmented by amplified instruments–did not dominate the charts. Despite the monumental artistic achievements of the blues artists, their records enjoyed only occasional commercial success.

Roosevelt Sykes was a traditional, Delta-style pianist when he first hit Chicago in 1929, a seminal member of the generation of pianists largely responsible for defining the hard-driving piano style that characterized Chicago blues through the 1950s. Unlike some of his contemporaries, however, Sykes readily adapted his style to the sophisticated R & B sounds that became popular among black record buyers in the late 40s and early 50s. Although his superb playing in the traditional style remained best known to white audiences before his death in 1983, Sykes’s recorded legacy demonstrates his facility in pop and R & B styles as well as with such traditional blues classics as “Dirty Mother for You,” “Driving Wheel,” and “44 Blues.”

Raining in My Heart is a reissue of some of Sykes’s early-50s sides originally recorded for Leonard Allen’s Chicago-based United Records label. As a historical document and reminder of a sometimes-forgotten facet of a great bluesman’s musical personality, it’s a fascinating record. For blues lovers, however, the bag is decidedly mixed.

United obviously intended to reach those in the mainstream black audience who were unimpressed by the era’s revolutionary updating of traditional country blues by the likes of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, and their contemporaries. From the opening bars of “Fine and Brown,” the first cut on this LP, the sound is characterized by bubbling ground swells of saxophones, sophisticated T-Bone Walker-style guitar accompaniment, and a vocal style that finds Sykes sometimes straining to sound like a higher-voiced Joe Williams.

When it works, it’s very entertaining. “Fine and Brown” is what R & B was originally supposed to be about, before the teenagers took it over. Bluesy, sophisticated, augmented by a gritty tenor solo by Robert “Sax” Crowder and featuring Sykes’s voice at its most suave, it’s a joyful marriage of blues, jazz, and pop. Sykes’s piano playing here manages to allude constantly to his roots, even if his vocal style often does not. He introduces even the most pop-oriented material with treble flurries straight out of a Delta juke, before sitting back to let the lush band and slick arrangements create the emotionally restrained, uptown pop feel that permeates most of these cuts.

Both “Lucky Blues” and “Raining in My Heart” illustrate the somewhat uncomfortable musical compromise that resulted from this approach. The down-home piano intros quickly segue into a burbling sax chorus and loping pop rhythms; the music is saved from mediocrity only by some elegant guitar accompaniment and Sykes’s irrepressible sense of fun. It’s interesting to note, however, that Howlin’ Wolf’s Memphis sessions featured instrumentation very similar to that accompanying Sykes on these cuts. Wolf’s primal power was so raw and overwhelming that he created music of burning emotional impact out of the very tension of disparate styles. Here, the slickness all too often threatens to smother Sykes’s blues.

The most enduring moments on this LP, to my blues-loving ears, are the ones when Sykes refrains from impersonating a crooner and sticks close to the styles he learned during his scuffling days in the Mississippi delta. “Heavy Heart,” for instance, features some tough blues lyrics (“You can fly high baby, but someday you’ll come tumbling down / and when you land, your used-to-be won’t be around!”), and both Ransom Knowling’s slap bass and Crowder’s gutsy tenor solo complement nicely the slick chording guitar–uncredited in the liner notes–and the understated backbeat of drummer Jump Jackson.

Likewise, “Too Hot to Handle” starts off with a piano intro borrowed from Pinetop Smith’s classic “Pinetop’s Boogie-Woogie” and remains delightfully in that vein. Sykes’s playful vocal asides are reminiscent of Fats Waller’s clowning, and the instrumentation features a surprising but effective jazz violin solo by Remo Biondi. Biondi’s work here illuminates the link between traditional black southern string band music, western swing, and latter-day jazz violin, and it all dances joyfully around Sykes’s wide-fingered piano attack to create a mood of romping abandon.

The Jimmy Reed-like slow grind and witty lyrics of “Ruthie Lee,” the gospel-tinged close harmony backing Sykes’s vocals on “Security Blues” and “Listen to My Song”–which harks back to traditional black music even as it looks ahead to the doo-wop crooners who would soon dominate R & B–and the rollicking “Walking the Boogie,” with its echoes of Basie’s “One O’clock Jump” as well as R & B party songs like “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” all emanate deep in the heart of Sykes’s monumental blues and jazz sensibility. Not even the most inappropriate arrangements could overshadow that entirely.

Still, United attempted some utterly unsuccessful experiments to update Sykes’s sound, and a few are included here. Biondi’s violin, jazzy and exhilarating on the up-tempo shuffles, is absolutely bizarre as it saws eerily away in the background of ballads like “4:00 Blues”; “Tell Me True” is a trite bit of pop fluff, rescued only by a gently swinging sax solo by J.T. Brown; and the nadir is probably “Toy Piano Blues,” featuring Sykes attempting to coax meaningful sounds out of a celesta. Sykes was obviously a sensitive soloist, and this was probably an ill-conceived attempt to feature him on an instrument that would let some of his subtleties and musical playfulness shine through, but the result is only embarrassing. Fats Waller on pipe organ this ain’t.

I can already hear musicians accusing me of trying to force a master artist into the bag of my own definitions of “authenticity,” which is what critics have attempted to do to B.B. King for over 20 years. But I have nothing against an artist expanding his horizons. It’s just that there’s a very real condescension to the listening audience in some of these attempts to water down Sykes’s sound. The implication is that raw, unvarnished blues would somehow be too harsh, too jarring, or too real for most listeners.

That kind of assumption on the part of record company executives and promo men was largely responsible for the eventual demise of both traditional blues and good R & B. The good, swinging cuts on this LP retain their breezy enjoyability some 35 years after they were recorded; the schlock cuts are a reminder of what the music industry has done to some of the most vital and profound music this century has produced.

It has been left to students of Sykes’s generation to rekindle the musical fires their mentors lit. Chicagoan Erwin Helfer is arguably the most prominent of these younger musicians, having studied or played with virtually every major blues and R & B pianist from New Orleans to Chicago who would grant him the opportunity. It’s difficult to realize that this musician who sat at the feet of so many greats is himself in his early 50s and approaching elder statesman status, despite his boyish good looks and the unblemished joy that runs through his music.

Chicago Piano finds Helfer displaying the range of his considerable musical and emotional gifts. He starts out, characteristically, with a lilting improvisation on the opening lines of “All of Me” that sounds almost like an emulation of Earl “Fatha” Hines, then breaks into a charging boogie-woogie. Throughout this record, Helfer displays a delightfully irreverent willingness to imbue jazz and pop standards with a hard-driving boogie rhythm, even as he flows gently into slow blues and ballads.

“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and Helfer’s own composition, “Rainy Day Blues,” are probably the purest examples of the lyrical, introspective side of Helfer’s music. His playfulness is subtly evident in some of the over-and-under-the-melody directions he takes “Nobody Knows,” but his melancholy musings and gently rolling stride call to mind an intimate late-night living room where a wise old piano professor is laying down the essence of jazz to a circle of good friends.

Most of the cuts here range from sensitive, bluesy interpretations of classics to romping boogie-woogie celebrations. An exception, “These Foolish Things” is a straight-ahead ballad that has more to do with a sophisticated piano bar than with either Basin Street or 47th Street in Chicago. The influence of jazzmen like Erroll Garner is well in evidence here, and it’s a fine piece of work.

But Helfer’s most entertaining moments find him solidly in his element: traditional blues and jazz laced with driving boogie-woogie. The most impressive cut in this genre is “C.C. Rider,” which finds Helfer turning the basic boogie-woogie bass pattern inside out and back against itself. The music’s almost Monk-like in its eccentricity, but Helfer’s driving right hand keeps it comfortably close to the blues.

As is so often the case, the ballads linger most in the memory. Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans” is a melancholy, sentimental tribute to the cradle of jazz that Helfer treats with appropriate respect. Ivory Joe Hunter’s well-worn “Since I Lost My Baby” is saved from staleness by Helfer’s decision to pass by the standard pop-ballad approach to the tune and dig deep into its bluesy soul. The introductory flurries and some of the right-hand treble rolls here are as pure an example of traditional blues as this LP has to offer.

Erwin Helfer reminds one of the late trumpeter Clifford Brown in his essential ebullience. Whether he’s inserting a sly quote from Monk’s “Misterioso” into the middle of “After Work It’s Just Me and a Empty Chair Blues,” oompah-ing like a calliope with his left hand to add a puckish touch to “C.C. Rider,” or slipping a sacrilegious boogie bass line into a jazz classic like “Take the “A’ Train,” Helfer combines a love of jazz tradition with a joyful sense of exploration.

That this LP may be definitive is good news. Better news is that Helfer’s still active and playing. Go out and enjoy.