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What Took Him So Long?

Erwin Helfer, Steven Dolins/Made for Each Other

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The shoestring nature of most independent record labels means they can be pretty erratic in their release schedules--the money to put out the next record often isn't there until the previous one pays for itself. But even that doesn't adequately explain the 25-year gap between releases for The Sirens Records, a local indie specializing in Chicago blues and boogie-woogie piano music.

Steven Dolins, now 45, was a teenager when he started the label with a pair of releases in the mid-70s, but the third item in his catalog, I'm Not Hungry but I Like to Eat--BLUES!, by Chicago boogie-woogie great Erwin Helfer, came out just last year. "I'm not a businessman," says Dolins. "I didn't do these things for business reasons, and it's not the reason I'm doing it now. It was definitely about the music."

His obsession with boogie-woogie piano was sparked by Helfer's performance at the University of Chicago Folk Festival in the early 70s. Dolins, then a high school student in Skokie, contacted the pianist and began taking lessons from him. "I sort of idolized him," he says. Like his idol Dolins ended up studying at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he spent his spare time soaking up the sounds of Professor Longhair and James Booker and, through Helfer's connections, meeting legends like Roosevelt Sykes and Tuts Washington. He started The Sirens in the summer of 1975, after his freshman year.

He also took a job at Jazz Record Mart, the shop owned by Delmark Records honcho Bob Koester, with the intention of learning as much as possible about the music business. His first release, with his high school friend David Goldberg, was a collection called Primitive Piano, featuring the work of four pianists--including Saint Louis bluesman Speckled Red and the New Orleans traditionalist Billie Pierce--that Helfer had originally released in 1957 on his own short-lived label, Tone. Dolins pressed a thousand; he still has a couple hundred in his closet. The following year, he released Heavy Timbre, recorded in a single raucous day of piano sessions by some of the city's greatest blues players--Willie Mabon, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Walker, Blind John Davis, and of course Helfer. "It was a great record, and I had a great time that day," says Dolins. His brother Barry (now the coordinator of the Chicago Blues Festival) helped finance that release, but Goldberg was busy with other things, and without him Dolins didn't enjoy the work.

"I didn't care for the business aspect of it and I lost interest," he says. "I was trying to figure out what to do with my life." He earned his bachelor's degree in physics and a master's in computer science at Tulane, then moved to Dallas, where he worked in a Texas Instruments research lab and earned his doctorate at the University of Texas in Arlington. In 1989 he moved back to the Chicago area, where his future wife, Judy, lived. He taught at the University of Wisconsin, worked at ACNielsen, and eventually landed at Hitachi, commuting to the Bay Area to serve as chief researcher in an IT lab. After he was laid off in April 2000, the company found him a consulting position in Chicago, but that fall his entire division was eliminated, and he was out of work.

"That's when I decided, 'OK, I'm going to do something that I enjoy,'" says Dolins. "Plus, Erwin needed to put out a record, so it was partially for my love of the blues piano and partially because I wanted to give something back to Erwin."

It had been nearly 15 years since Helfer had released a recording in the U.S.--the pianist remains one of the hidden jewels of Chicago music. As a teenager in the early 50s he'd fallen in love with boogie-woogie and jazz, and like Dolins he hung around with and learned from his heroes, including ragtime pianist Glover Compton, boogie-woogie pioneers Estella "Mama" Yancey and Cripple Clarence Lofton, and sometime Louis Armstrong drummer Baby Dodds. He went to Tulane ostensibly to study psychology, but admits that he spent most of his time listening to and playing music. After four years, a growing interest in Baroque music led him back home to study at the American Conservatory of Music.

"I thought the music sounded so beautiful that it must've been easy to play," says Helfer, 66. "I was in for a horrible surprise." In his first music theory class Helfer drew the tails on some eighth notes the wrong way. "The teacher burst out laughing and said it looked like the wind was blowing in the wrong direction." Within two years he'd abandoned his dream of being a concert pianist and settled on a theory program; he's earned his living as a piano teacher ever since. Although he's taught at Columbia College and Roosevelt University, Helfer's primary classroom is his Lincoln Park living room. Most of his students are beginners, but on his long list of past clients are local blueswoman Yoko Noge and innovative jazz pianist Myra Melford.

Helfer has recorded a handful of albums since the early 60s, and over the years he's played long-term, low-key engagements at spots like Gavroche and Andy's. At his current regular gig, on Thursday nights at Joe's Be-Bop Cafe & Jazz Emporium, he's usually ignored by the touristy clientele--but he says he doesn't mind because it pleases him just to play music for himself. The inelegantly titled I'm Not Hungry is a gorgeous mix of boogie-woogie, slow blues, and even jazz balladry (specifically Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood"); tenor saxophonist John Brumbach, a frequent collaborator, sits in on four tracks.

This year Dolins has added a few more items to The Sirens' catalog, including a reissue of Heavy Timbre with previously unreleased bonus tracks and a new blues-piano summit called 8 Hands on 88 Keys, with Helfer, Detroit Junior, Pinetop Perkins, and relative newcomer Barrelhouse Chuck, whose newest full-length the label will release next month. Dolins, who's accepted a teaching job at Bradley University in Peoria for the fall, says he would love to release recordings by other blues pianists, but he admits he's chosen to focus on a tradition that has few expert proponents left. "I just don't know how many more CDs I'll be able to put out," he says.

Helfer and Barrelhouse Chuck perform Saturdays in May and Fridays in June at Katerina's, 1920 W. Irving Park; 773-348-7592. Helfer and his Chicago Boogie Ensemble play every Thursday at Joe's Be-Bop Cafe & Jazz Emporium, Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand; 312-595-5299.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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