Boogie-woogie pianist Erwin Helfer has seen a lot of Chicago years

Steve Knopper, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

A: Sometimes two.

Q: Do you still ride your bike?

A: No, I really can’t. My balance is off. I don’t have the wind that I used to have. But I do walk inside. And I lift heavy weights. They’re about 26 pounds, and with a crossbar, it’s 36 pounds. So I stay in fairly good condition. But coming back and playing after my depression, and after I was in the hospital, playing and teaching has done more for me than anything could.

Q: Tell me how you came to be depressed. It was at the beginning of the pandemic, right?

A: At least two of the things I love most — playing music and teaching — were strictly unable for me to do. I had no digital skills and couldn’t manage my bank account at all, because I always just rode my bike down to the bank, put in my money, or took out my money, and mailed all my bills. This I couldn’t do. I started being dysfunctional. Some of my friends caught onto it quickly. They did research into what was the best hospital and got me into Rush University Medical Center. When I went there, I was really in bad shape.

Q: You had electroconvulsive therapy — is that as scary as it sounds?

A: It was the best therapy that I could’ve had. I don’t know how it works, but it wasn’t painful.

Q: Are you back to your full schedule of lessons?


A: Oh, no, I used to teach 30 to 40 lessons a week. Now I’m only teaching about seven. I know I’m taking a chance, but I insisted all of my students have been vaccinated and they all wear masks inside the house. Physically, I’m really in great condition, because I’ve had COVID and I’ve been vaccinated.

Q: I didn’t realize you had COVID. When?

A: (Singer and friend) Katherine Davis, when I moved back in the house, was staying here, taking care of me. But she was always outside the house, going to the South Side, where she lives. She got COVID, and I got it from her. During that period, I was sick, but she was a lot sicker. I ended up taking care of her — which was fine, because she offered right away to take care of me. She’s been a good friend for a long time. And we both have a lot of dirt on each other. (Laughs)

(Davis recalls of the time, “There wasn’t anybody to help take care of him, so they were talking about putting him in a nursing home. And I said, ‘No. I can’t let that happen to him.’”)

Q: It sounds like you’ve recovered, from both COVID and depression.

A: I have. A friend asked me, “What was the best time in your life?” And I said, “Right now.”


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