Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, United States, as a child Helfer was more interested in classical music than blues. Helfer was introduced to piano blues as a young teenager growing up in Chicago in the early 1950s. Once Helfer discovered the blues he enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans, completing college with a degree in music. He spent time outside of class studying the piano style of Crescent City pianists Archibald and Professor Longhair. 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.