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Erwin Helfer

Erwin Helfer

American boogie-woogie, blues and jazz pianist
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro American boogie-woogie, blues and jazz pianist
Countries United States of America
Occupations Pianist Jazz musician
Gender male
Birth 20 January 1936 (Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, U.S.A.)
The details

Erwin Helfer (born January 20, 1936) is an American boogie-woogie, blues and jazz pianist.


Born in 1936 and raised in Chicago, Illinois, United States. Erwin Helfer is a Chicago boogie woogie and jazz innovator, performer, and educator. Helfer was mentored by William Russell, who introduced him to Baby Dodds, Mahalia Jackson, Glover Compton, Cripple Clarence Lofton, and Estelle Mama Yancey, as a young teenager growing up in Chicago in the early 1950s.

William Russell moved to New Orleans and worked on a Ford Foundation grant which led to the creation of the Jazz Archives at Tulane University. Helfer followed Russell to New Orleans and studied at Tulane University. He studied Psychology but he did not complete a degree. He became very close to Billie Pierce and DeDe Pierce. He spent time outside of class studying the piano style of Crescent City pianists Archibald and Professor Longhair.

In 1956, Erwin Helfer made the only recordings of house rent party pianist Doug Suggs and also recorded Speckled Red, Billie Pierce, and James Robinson (on the LP entitled Primitive Piano for his Tone Records and subsequently reissued by The Sirens Records SR-5005). Other tracks from the Speckled Red recording session were issued on Delmark Record's first release.

Helfer began his professional career when Estelle Yancey, wife of pianist and boogie-woogie pioneer Jimmy Yancey, coaxed him to fill in for her accompanist, Little Brother Montgomery. His initial performance with Yancey led to a long-term professional partnership with the singer that lasted to her death in 1986 at age ninety.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Erwin Helfer recorded for Chess Records, Testament Records, Flying Fish Records, and various European labels. Peter J. Welding, one of the preeminent blues historians and scholars of all time, wrote that Helfer had "mastered the rhythmic and melodic subtleties" of the blues piano style.

In 1976, Helfer recorded Heavy Timbre - Chicago Boogie Piano for The Sirens Records; the recording session simulated a house rent party and included blues pianists Blind John Davis, Sunnyland Slim, Willie Mabon, and Jimmy Walker.

In 1982 Helfer partnered with Pete Crawford and started Red Beans Records, and released albums by Estelle Yancey, Blind John Davis, Johnny "Big Moose" Walker, and other Chicago blues artists. These recordings were sold to Evidence Records.

In 2001, Helfer began collaborating with The Sirens Records, which restarted in 2001. He was nominated for the Blues Music Awards in 2003, for 'Comeback Blues Album of the Year', for his CD I'm Not Hungry But I Like To Eat - Blues. He has subsequently recorded St. James Infirmary, Careless Love, and Erwin Helfer Way for The Sirens Records.

Recently he has played at the Chicago Jazz Festival, 2005–2007; Hungary's Debrecen Jazz Festival, 2005, the Chicago Blues Festival, 1986-2010, and throughout Chicago's blues clubs.

Selective discography

Year Title Genre Label
1974 Blues, Boogie Woogie Piano Duets & Solos Blues, Boogie Flying Fish
1976 Boogie Piano Chicago Style Boogie Big Bear
1979 On the Sunny Side of The Street Blues, Jazz Flying Fish
1987 Chicago Piano Blues, Jazz Red Beans
2001 I'm Not Hungry But I Like To Eat - Blues Blues, Boogie, Jazz The Sirens Records www.thesirensrecords.com
2002 Heavy Timbre - Chicago Boogie Piano Blues, Boogie The Sirens Records www.thesirensrecords.com
2002 8 Hands on 88 Keys - Chicago Blues Piano Masters Blues, Boogie The Sirens Records www.thesirensrecords.com
2003 St. James Infirmary (with Skinny Williams) Jazz, Blues and R&B The Sirens Records www.thesirensrecords.com
2005 Careless Love Blues, Boogie, Jazz The Sirens Records www.thesirensrecords.com
2013 Erwin Helfer Way Blues, Boogie, Jazz The Sirens Records www.thesirensrecords.com
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