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Thursday, September 12, 2024

Respect Your Elders: Erwin Helfer

Erwin Helfer, 84, a Chicago boogie-woogie, blues and jazz pianist and teacher. He’s well known across Chicago for his intimate performances, whip-smart sense of humor and loyal fans who love to see him play.

Helfer is born and raised a Chicagoan. After meeting music historian and modernist composer William (Bill) Russell in the 1950s, Helfer followed his mentor to New Orleans. He briefly attended Tulane University where he studied psychology.

After moving back to Chicago, he spent a significant amount of his time on the South Side learning the style of “Father of the Chicago Blues” legend Jimmy Yancey and later met Jimmy’s  wife, blues singer Estelle “Mama” Yancey. When Helfer was a teenager, “Mama” Yancey convinced him to play a show with her accompanist Little Brother Montgomery. Yancey was impressed with Helfer’s skills and they stayed close friends and music collaborators up until her passing in 1986.

Erwin Helfer

Helfer began touring and making a name for himself. He also learned from and was mentored by Cripple Clarence Lofton, Speckled Red, and Sunnyland Slim. During the 60s and 70s, Erwin released several duet albums with his performing and recording partner of ten years, Jimmy Walker.

Over his 60-year career of playing music, Helfer pushed the envelope of blues music.

“Erwin has the chops, the feel, and the drive of the masters but he also pushes the ‘classic’ blues piano music forward in a totally new direction. His music is graceful, spirited, and at times beautifully dissonant.” Helfer’s website states. “Erwin’s classical music training allows him to hear and interpret the simple, percussive blues and boogie piano style like no one else.”

Helfer played at the Chicago Blues Festival, Chicago Jazz Festival, Debrecen Jazz Festival in Hungary, and throughout the most well-known blues clubs in Chicago. He could be found every Tuesday night playing blues at The Hungry Brain in Roscoe Village. Like most musicians, Helfer was forced to stop performing in March when COVID-19 arrived.

It’s been a challenging several months for Helfer who wasn’t able to do either of his two favorite things — perform and teach. He missed socializing with friends and experienced a severe bout of depression. Thanks to a strong support system, Helfer was able to get better and is now living with a close friend and blues singer Katherine Davis.

Helfer plans to get back in the studio to edit his latest album which was recorded in March. He also expects to publish a book “Blues Piano and How to Play It,” sometime soon.

“I’m just grateful for everything, and I find my days full,” he said in a Chicago Sun-Times interview.

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