Editor’s Note: This is part three of a multi-part series on the history of Marshall’s musical history and the black residents who created the musical legacy we know today. today.
Marshall’s legacy as the birthplace of boogie woogie is a story that cannot be told without mention of the city’s first and only Boogie Woogie ambassador, known locally as King of Boogie Woogie, Omar Sharriff, aka David Alexander Elam.
But in truth, Sharriff’s life story also cannot be fully told without mention of the boogie woogie, with all aspects of who he is, including his birth name, tied to the historical musical style.
Sharriff was born David Alexander Elam on March 10, 1938, in Shreveport, with his parents, Tom and Susie Elam, moving with him to Marshall before Sharriff was old enough to speak.
Sharriff told Jack Canson, a Marshall native who ran the city’s Birthplace of Boogie Woogie music program for the better part of a decade, that he found out later in life that his birth name, David Alexander , came from his father’s best friend, a Shreveport-based Boogie Woogie player named David “Black Ivory King” Alexander.
Not only was Sharriff named after a boogie woogie musician, but he was also raised by a musician, along with his father Tom Elam, a proud boogie woogie musician.
Sharriff once mentioned in an interview with NPR that although her love for Boogie Woogie came from her father, her mother Susie was far from a fan.
Canson said Sharriff told him his mother called the style “devil’s music”, forbidding his father to play it around the house. This left Sharriff sitting in the yard with his dad and friends, listening to the boogie woogie sounds the locals were picking up in the barrels.
Sharriff spent his youth in Marshall, studying at Pemberton High School and even participating in the school band as a drummer.
Canson said Sharriff’s passion for the piano came after seeing a free concert at Pemberton High featuring boogie and blues music from fellow Marshall native Floyd Dixon and Houston’s Amos Milburn, whose uncle was the school principal.
“I knew straight away that was what I had to do, play that piano,” Sharriff later told Canson.
It was 1955 when Sharriff left Marshall, for what he thought was for good, after witnessing a brutal attack on a black man as two police officers stood by without interfering. Sharriff was just 17 and embarked on the Greyhound bus headed for California on his own.
Sharriff then spent the next 55 years establishing himself on the music scene, first in California, then expanding across the country and eventually across the world.
Canson said Sharriff, then still known as Dave Alexander, developed a reputation and following in the California Bay Area and all along the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s.
In the early 1970s, he was part of San Francisco’s legendary Minnie’s Can Do Club, where Canson said he was discovered by John Wasserman of the San Francisco Chronicle, who introduced him to his friend, legendary rock impresario Bill Graham.
Graham booked Sharriff to open for famous musicians such as Nina Simone, The Rolling Stones, Big Mama Thornton, Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters. He was the opening act, although not in the film, for Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz”. Two of Sharriff’s albums, “The Rattler” and “Dirt On the Ground”, received critical acclaim.
“Dave Alexander was becoming widely known as an angry, intelligent and fiercely talented performer whose future seemed to be limitless,” Canson said.
However, when Graham died in a helicopter crash en route to one of his music concerts, Sharriff’s situation deteriorated. Sharriff had faced his fair share of misfortune throughout his life, surviving two gunshot wounds to the stomach and a serious car accident, which nearly killed him.
Additionally, Sharriff was mourning the loss of his brother Jimmy, who was murdered.
This led Sharriff to a continued and growing addiction to painkillers and alcohol, addictions he would carry with him for the rest of his life.
It was in 1976 that Sharriff began studying Islam and dropped his birth name, calling himself Omar Hakim Kayyam and later changing it to Imam Omar Sharriff.
Dr John Tennison, who first discovered that Marshall was the birthplace of boogie woogie, said Sharriff began going through Omar Sharriff, both in tribute to his new found faith, but also in reverence to the famous actor of the same name.
Sharriff remained in California as the boogie woogie and jazz music scene began to dwindle around 2007, when his problems were again compounded by the need for a double bypass.
Even with the operation, Sharriff was able to recover and perform at the 2006 Chicago Blues Festival, but he continued to face dwindling opportunities to perform after this performance for the next few years.
“His Roland keyboard broke down and he couldn’t afford to repair or replace it. He lived in a rundown, cheap two-room apartment in a tough part of town, suffering physical and emotional pain, struggling to get by on a monthly welfare check that barely covered his $700 rent, and unable to obtain a reliable supply of prescriptions. painkillers,” Canson said, “With the exception of a few friends who did what they could to help him, Omar was more alone than he had ever been in his life, without even a keyboard to get lost in his music.
Then, in 2010, Tennison traveled to California and met Sharriff. Tennison said he reported to Marshall officials how Tennison’s living situation was not going well, and the city brought him home for the first time in over 50 years to perform for the Boogie. Woogie Homecoming Concert.
Canson and city officials and staff then worked to bring Sharriff back around Christmas of that year, and offered him permanent housing and a position as the city’s resident boogie woogie ambassador.
The city council proclaimed June 10, 2010 as “Omar Sharriff Day”, conferring this honor on him at a meeting of the city council.
“Before Omar moved permanently to Marshall, I spoke to him on the phone every day. After he moved here, I was with him every day of his life, except for a three-day period when I had to go to Los Angeles,” Canson said.
While at Marshall, Canson recalled Sharriff playing regularly at the OS2 pub in the courthouse square, free second Saturday performances, concerts at the then visual arts center, civic center and for a fundraiser Special Fund on Main Street at the Marshall Hotel.
“He had invitations to come back to France for a European tour and to perform in New Orleans. Unfortunately, his state of health was such that the doctors advised him not to fly,” said Canson.
The only time Omar performed outside of Marshall was at the T. Bone Walker Blues Festival in Linden in June 2011, where he visited T. Bone Walker’s daughter Bernita and shared memories from when Sharriff, as Dave Alexander, had previously performed with the legendary Big Blues. Canson said Sharriff often played T. Bone’s signature song “They Call It Stormy Monday.”
During his residency as a Boogie Woogie Ambassador, Sharriff also visited and performed for school children at special events.
“He loved performing and, no matter how sick he was, he never declined an invitation to perform locally. It was like everyone in town knew Omar,” Canson said.
Sharriff’s last performance was on January 5, 2012, playing “Lonesome Christmas” with my Canson’s son and Mike and Carl Mitchell at OS2.
Sharriff died on January 8, 2012, of what was determined to be suicide.
The city of Marshall honored Omar’s memory with a funeral held at the city’s civic center attended by more than 300 people.
Tennison, Gail Beil, Canson and his wife Nancy and others spoke about Sharriff at the funeral and musicians including Wes Jeans, Anthony G. Parish, Carl and Mike Mitchell played while Sharriff’s casket lay in state before the scene.
Sharriff was buried in North Algoma Cemetery on Victory Drive.
Canson said a tribute concert was held at Charlie’s Back Yard bar and restaurant to raise funds to erect a proper headstone for the Blues Hall of Fame musical artist.
“The people of Marshall, Texas have been widely recognized and praised for bringing the recognition and respect that Dave Alexander/Omar Sharriff deserved over the last year and a half of his life,” Canson said.