Conversation with Erwin Helfer, Chicago’s progressive boogie/blues/jazz pianist

Conversation with Erwin Helfer, Chicago’s progressive boogie/blues/jazz pianist

Interview by Ivan Handler. Posted July 13, 2022.

Erwin Helfer is a Chicago based boogie, blues and jazz pianist.  He has studied with many of the boogie masters and has played all over the world.  The city of Chicago just named June 9th as Erwin Helfer Day as he was the opening act for the Chicago Blues Festival 2022.  Erwin has also donated his time for many progressive causes over the years.  This conversation focuses more on how the music has impacted his view of the world.

Ivan Handler is an old friend of Erwin’s and is an activist who has worked closely with UNITY.  He met Erwin in 1970 when he was playing blues harp.  Music gave way to grad school (mathematics), but he and Erwin have remained friends ever since they met.

A few other things to know about Erwin.  He attracts friends like flypaper.  Some of this is because of his music but most of it is because of the kind of person Erwin is.  He’s very engaged with supporting living beings.  Part of this is because he is a Buddhist, part of it is because of who Erwin is. We have a meditation group that meets in his attic (at least until the pandemic, it is starting up again). Carl Davidson was one of our outstanding members until Carl moved back to Beaver County in Pennsylvania. – Ivan Handler

Erwin Helfer. Photo courtesy of Ivan Handler.

Ivan: I think your story is interesting from a political point of view, not just cultural. And that’s what I wanted to start with. Could you talk a little bit about when you started studying blues and boogie piano?  You were in high school, right?

Erwin: We were living in Glencoe – a suburb of Chicago. Well, there was a piano player at New Trier high school, Bob or Bobby Wright. Pretty interesting guy, very detached from everything. And I think he was on the spectrum. He had perfect pitch. And he could imitate and describe styles like boogie and so on. And we became friends as much as I could become a friend with him.

And he played me some records before that. I liked Joe Springer ,  Dale Woods and people who played honky-tonk piano. And I probably liked Frankie Lane.

Ivan: And how old were you about this time?

Erwin: Oh, in my early teens, I would say. And I met Bill Russell at one of the parties and he became my Mr. Natural.

Ivan: Why is Bill Russell at a party thrown by a high school student?

Erwin: Oh, well, that’s an interesting question. I mean, here’s an older guy who looks like Ben Franklin. He studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg and was not an avant-garde composer. Bill was interested in percussion. And he heard Baby Dodds in New Orleans music and he said, “Well they’re doing everything I’m trying to do except better.” And he was interested in recording music.  He had a company called American Music, which he headquartered at his home at 1637 North Ashland at the time.

Ivan: Did he start taking you down to bars on the South Side?

Erwin: He did. He took me to Mahalia Jackson’s house and took me to Mahalia Jackson when she was singing. She lived on Prairie Street at that time.

Ivan: So, you got to meet her?

Erwin: Oh, yeah. At a very young age. Yeah.

Ivan: And you were taking piano lessons at this time?

Erwin: I was taking piano lessons. On and off, because I was never a good student. I really had to learn to teach myself. I met other piano players later, like Little Brother Montgomery,  Blind John Davis.

Ivan: How did you get down to those bars?

Erwin: I would go with an older person. My dad would take me to places, too.

Ivan: Here’s the other thing. So, you’re living in Glencoe, which even though it was a stop by the Underground Railroad , it was a lily-white suburb at that point.

Erwin: That was like a trolley line.

Ivan:  Let’s talk about race. So, you’re this lily-white suburb and you’ve fallen in love with, for the most part, a lot of Afro-American music. What’s the reaction of your parents or friends? You know what’s going on both in the suburbs and on the South Side. How are people looking at you?

Erwin: My parents were worrying and staying up. Don’t worry about me, I have a mind of my own, you know. But I was always honest with them. I told them what I was doing.

Ivan: But to have a young white boy taking on this music and going down to bars and stuff like that, that was pretty new at that time, right? I mean, there was no one else doing that.

I met Blind John Davis, Jimmy Walker and others and I hung with them. I loved the music so much. I actually wanted to be Black, but I never acted Black. I was never you know, like some of these white musicians who imitate Black folks.

Ivan: Yeah, trying to pretend they’re a sharecropper.  (Laughter.) There’s a lot of interesting things about what you do and the way you play, but it’s that you’ve also become very political. But you’re not like me. I became political through the standard kind of political channels. And that’s a kind of activism. You support activists like me, but that’s not where you are.

Erwin: Yeah.

Ivan: People in the music guided you in this direction. Talk about the viewpoint you got about the rest of our society just by knowing these musicians and playing with them.

Erwin: You know, I’m not a scholarly person, but there was something that seemed really unfair to me about the whole way Blacks are treated. And when I got to a point where I could do something about it, I did something about it. I wasn’t particularly interested in joining any organization, even if the organization was interested in me. I like fairness. You know, realizing that we are all basically the same. If I saw something about making things fairer for people, then well, I’ll play for you. You know, I did, and everybody thought it was a great contribution. It wasn’t to make me feel better. It’s what I should have done.

Ivan: It’s what you did. It’s a good thing. Let’s talk about the reception you had in the Black community.

Erwin: It was great. It really was. Yeah, it’s really nice.

Ivan: Right. But if they had come up to your community, it would have been different. But you were accepted pretty much, right?

Erwin: Yeah. And I also saw a certain amount of unstuckness that I don’t see in white society.

Ivan: And unstuckness meaning…

Erwin: Not so uptight or stiff. In other words, because of the way they have been treated by the larger part of society, they see through much white pretense. And it was nice of my parents who let me bring Baby Dodds out to the house and Glover Compton, an old piano player who knew Jelly Roll Morton. I’d go down and pick them up on the South Side and bring them up to Glencoe.

Ivan: The thing I find interesting is that you were one of the first whites to really get serious about the blues in the Chicago scene. I know you knew Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield and all the others who came on later. But at a certain point, the scene started transforming and it started making money. And aside from a few superstars like Buddy Guy or Junior Wells, it seems like for the most part, the money in blues is now going off to whites, and that Afro-American musicians, Black musicians, for the most part, are into either some of the more wilder forms of jazz, which the city has lots and lots of, or other kinds of things, but not much into the blues.

Erwin: Right. Well, that’s understandable.

Ivan: Yeah, talk about that.

Erwin: The reason that’s understandable is they (Black musicians) have already experienced the blues and there’s no reason that they have to experience the blues anymore. So, they passed it on to another generation inadvertently.

Ivan: Yeah.

Erwin: And so that’s cool, you know, somebody picks up something from somebody else. And, you know, a lot of the avant-garde musicians probably know very much about Bela Bartok and Arnold Schoenberg, and a lot of them don’t. Some were shocking and some weren’t.

Ivan: Yeah, but they all pay attention. I mean, you’ve gone to Europe with the AACM (Association for the Advance of Creative Musicians ).

Erwin: I didn’t play with them. I played separately.

Ivan: I know. Well, Avreeayl Ra (an AACM drummer) plays with you. The point is, from a social point of view, you’re part of that scene. It’s not like you’re considered unimportant or anything. It’s another kind of music that they respect. But I think it’s interesting that there’s not many people like you in the music business who are both socially and musically engaged in, the Afro-American community. But also, you’re political, but you’re not an activist. You just have a good heart. What I’m thinking about is it’s your experiences with the people that have shaped not your music, but your politics a lot, right? That’s what it seems like to me.

Erwin: Anybody’s experience with people will impact their politics.

Ivan: Well, I suppose that’s true. But not everyone is open to acknowledging that or seeing things that you’ve seen without prompting. I mean, I became political, because I had a radical rabbi who inspired me to become an activist. But I didn’t come to it in the same way you came to things. And for you it is much more organic.

Erwin: And Bill Russell had American Music Records. That was it. Put stuff out on a ten- inch vinyl every year. He moved to New Orleans. He didn’t have a phone in his place because he considered the phone company a monopoly.

Ivan: I’m really sorry I never got a chance to meet him.

Erwin: I remember he had ten-inch records, he put them in an envelope and on the outside he would place the cover notes and the pictures of people on the back. He was a curmudgeon so he wrote: “During the existing military dictatorship, I couldn’t afford to get anything but a cheap salvage tape recorder”. Well, that was really fucking far out.

Ivan: Talk about Steve Dollins (his record producer). So, Steve started recording you, how many albums with him now?

Erwin: God, I don’t know how many.

Ivan: Probably 10 or 12 maybe.

Erwin: I’m on somewhere there’s 88 keys with four different people playing.

Ivan: When he met you, he was also in high school, right?

Erwin: Yeah. He was about 15 years old. And he called me up and said, “Come on down.” And I was living in a funky place. It was an old one on Greenview.

Ivan: Oh, yeah. Greenview And what?

Erwin: Maybe to two blocks to the other side of Fullerton. Okay, now it’s really nice, but I had a linoleum floor and cheap painting. And I was teaching at the place. We became good friends and have stayed in touch for a long time. And then somewhere in the interim, he and David Goldberg and Barry, Steve’s brother, got together and put out a CD called Heavy Timbre. And I was one of the people who played on it. Willie Mabon played it for him. John Davis, Jimmie Walker, myself and more.  I’m the only white person on it.  A friend called it four men and a ghost.

Ivan: Yeah. When did Steve decide to create a record company?

Erwin: Well, it was the first album he recorded.

Ivan: Yeah, he’s been basically your producer, right? For many years.

Erwin: He helps me with my finances and everything. And on top of that, he enjoys doing it. I mean, he likes to walk around and follow me in a grocery store or something like that. He has such a beautiful heart. And he just played me a cut from his latest gospel record. I introduced him to the piano player, and that’s what started him with gospel. Duane Mason is the name of the piano player.

Ivan: It strikes me that the relationships with these people that have really guided you both musically and politically. That’s what your involvement has meant with the music, which I think is important.

Erwin: Yeah.

Ivan: And beautiful.

Erwin: Yeah, I think. I think it’s beautiful and important.

Ivan:  You’ve done a lot of benefits for many different causes. And I thought getting a list of them would be good, like Sullivan House. Tell us a little bit about Sullivan House.

Erwin: Janice Greer , was the brains behind the whole thing. And she was just a remarkable woman. She found this place in a Black neighborhood. It was designed by Louis Sullivan . And they bought it.  She and others she recruited fixed up the inside. A lot of Black kids from the neighborhood were attracted to it and they became part of the Sullivan House. And it turned into being an arts and crafts workshop. At first, some of the kids were ripping the place off but eventually they started returning the things they ripped off. They developed a really good relationship with Sullivan House as well as with the people at Circle Pines.

Ivan: Circle Pines, the old progressive formerly CPUSA camp, was a camp for children and adults eventually became independent..

Erwin: Yeah, well, I went there too, and I didn’t think in terms of safety or anything like that. I thought it was just a good place for people to be and the kids were curious about everything going on.

Ivan: You did benefits for them.

Erwin: I did one at the McCormick Place downtown and Pete Welding, who was the assistant director of Down Beat – a major jazz journal, was presenting Muddy Waters with an award. So, we booked McCormick Place, and I put together the musicians and I played as well.  And that gave them enough money to put a heating system in that winter because they would have frozen their asses off or probably discontinued if they couldn’t be open for the winter. It eventually changed into more of a school, still called the Sullivan House.

Ivan: There’s the Coalition for the Homeless, and you did a lot of things for them and then for Growing Home.  Both started by Les Brown.  A really fantastic guy.

Erwin: He sure was. And I was honored to play benefits for his organizations.

Singer Katherine Davis with Erwin Helfer. Photo courtesy of Ivan Handler.

Ivan: I met Les when we did this benefit for you in the ‘90s. Right? Yeah. With all of these people who you had done benefits for, we got together and we did a benefit for you. But it just wasn’t a benefit. It was a concert honoring you. And that was exciting.

Erwin: Yeah. But I had to end up being the emcee. I thought it was all organized or some such thing.

Ivan: Well, it was the best we could do.

Erwin: Bennie Lenard gave a speech that I thought was really moving.

Ivan: I do remember. And that’s actually my next set of questions on Bennie and his wife, Ardrella. So let me just mention that Bennie was an autoworker at Harvester in Maywood. (Harvester is gone now.) He was brutally beaten by the police for a minor traffic altercation which wasn’t his fault. But a young white girl had hit his car and complained to the police that Bennie was responsible. Benny, luckily, was a huge man, about six foot four, pretty large. The police took his clothes off after they arrested him. It was in the middle of the wintertime, and they beat him up, threw him in a jail cell and opened the window and threw some water on him, figuring he would die. That didn’t happen. There was a big committee that worked for years trying to get him justice. We got something. But as usual, given the corruption in our society, he didn’t get what he deserved. But you did some benefits for them and then also became friends. Could you talk about that?

Erwin: I stayed in touch with them. Ardrella also worked for the People’s Law Office – (note: they led the fight to get justice for the assassination of Fred Hampton).

Ivan: Ardrella was definitely pretty remarkable. So were both of them. But she was definitely a fighter.

Erwin: Yeah, she was. And I went on a march with Bennie..

Ivan: We went down to Tupelo, Mississippi.

Erwin: To Tupelo? Yeah, with you and others. I was so impressed with the way Bennie talked to the people there. Bennie grew up in the country, knows what it’s like. And I was just so impressed.

Ivan: He was a beautiful man. I remember when you started learning to be a teacher for children. Why did you do it?

Erwin: Actually, I started teaching before I took piano pedagogy at Northeastern University. I wrote a thesis on teaching blues piano as part of that program.

Ivan: But you’ve been teaching children in particular?

Erwin: Yeah, I started teaching children through my teacher at the American Conservatory, Jerry Davidson. What a nice dude he was. I switched my major from classical piano to music theory because I could never read fast enough to play an ensemble class. There was no way I could do it. I wasn’t a reader. But Jerry was very encouraging to me for teaching and got me a job out at the Park Force Conservatory where I taught for a while; it was a community school.  And teaching blues was the furthest thing from my mind. I taught Bartok for Children, the Microcosmos, first lessons in Bach.

Ivan: Well, I remember, you know, when my daughter took lessons from you for many years. While she wasn’t the best student, she had a lot of fun. It was a great experience for her.

Erwin: And I gave her a lot of trouble, too (laughter). She didn’t seem to mind it, I don’t think.

Erwin Helfer at home. Photo by Ivan Handler.

Ivan: And you bought your house in about 1968?

Erwin: Yeah for $400 down and $100 a month.

Ivan: Not to mention that this home is an old working-class home. This neighborhood used to be a working-class neighborhood, but it’s now been gentrified. And on both sides of it you’ve got homes that are probably worth several million. And I also want to mention that State Rep. Robyn Gabel  was able to change the street name to Erwin Helfer Way.  Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

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