If you're a big fan of piano blues like myself it's disheartening to see such a scarcity of new piano blues records. Thankfully the Chicago based The Sirens label has stepped in to issue a pair of excellent new piano blues CD's and a classic session from the mid-70's. Erwin Helfer's is an acknowledged Chicago master who despite a hefty reputation has recorded far too little. Iím Not Hungry But I Like To EatĖ Blues! is an exceptional piano blues release and well worth the wait. Helfer is also featured on 8 Hands On 88 Keys a summit meeting of of great Chicago piano legends that in some ways is a sequel to Heavy Timbre recorded some 25 years earlier.
8 Hands On 88 Keys (great title) also features Helfer as well as Chicago veterans Pinetop Perkins, Detroit Junior and the the youngster of the bunch, Barrelhouse Chuck. While the Chicago piano blues scene is well past it's glory days it good to see these gentleman keeping the tradition alive and well. All the artists get to shine on their own as well as collaborating with one another. Barrelhouse Chuck may be the youngster but he's an impressive player and a very good vocalist shining on the Sunnyland number "It's You Baby" plus taking the vocals on "Pinetop's Blues" with Helfer playing piano and Roosevelt Sykes' "Miss Ida B." with Detroit Junior on piano. Detroit Junior has lived and played in Chicago for the past fifty years and is in fine form on soulful numbers like a remake of his 1960 Bea & Baby record "I'm So Unhappy", a great version of "Staggerlee" and a moving vocal performance on "Ain't Nobody's Business" with Helfer on piano. Helfer is showcased on the rollicking "Stop Time Boogie" and a sublime "4 O'clock Blues." At 88 Pinetop Perkins is rightly dubbed "the elder statesman of blues piano" and is featured on the set's final four cuts. Perkins has recorded solo only rarely making these sides especially noteworthy as he delivers beautiful laid back performances on "Grinder Man Blues", "How Much More" and "How Long Blues."
Heavy Timbre captures five legendary pianists at a "studio party" in 1976 and can be seen as a precursor to the above record. Once again Helfer is the common link on this session that features sides by Blind John Davis, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Walker and Willie Mabon. Blind John Davis was a ubiquitous name on blues records of the 30's and 40's playing with all the top Chicago artists such as Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson among others. Davis is in fine form whether on the stomping "Davis Boogie" or the wistful "I Almost Lost My Mind." Sunnyland Slim was another veteran of the Windy City playing for more than 50 years with just about everyone worth mentioning on the Chicago scene. Sunnyland's rumbling piano and powerhouse vocals are heard on typically solid numbers like his signature "She Got A Thing Goin' On" and "Gotta See My Lawyer." Willie Mabon had some genuine R&B hits for Chess in the 50's and remakes his 1952 chart topper "I Don't Know" and the classic Willie Dixon penned "Seventh Son" as well as the fine slow blues of "World of Trouble." Helfer is is heard on a pair of instrumentals including the storming "The Fives" and the under recorded Jimmy Walker is showcased on a pair of fine slow blues. As an added bonus are five newly discovered tracks that capture the artists in a relaxed, informal setting that make up in atmosphere for what they lack in sound quality. Sadly, of the five artists, only Helfer is still alive to carry on the tradition making this document all the more valuable.
While piano blues was once a healthy and thriving tradition it's sadly been marginalized in recent decades to be replaced with the cult of the electric guitar. These three CD's are first class piano blues records and show that there are still a few keeping the tradition alive. Sadly they also show how much we've lost of this once thriving tradition. You can find out more about The Sirens label by visiting their website at www.thesirensrecords.com
- Jeff Harris