Omar Sharriff died at his home in Marshall on January 8, 2012. He was 73. Born David Alexander Elam on March 10, 1938 in Shreveport, La., to Tom Elam and Susie Hill Elam, Omar’s family returned to Marshall while he was still an infant. He grew up in Marshall and graduated from Pemberton High School in 1955, then moved to Oakland, California. At the time of his death he was Marshall’s Birthplace of Boogie Woogie artist-in-residence and was affectionately known throughout the city as “the Boogie Woogie Man.”
Music was a compelling factor in Omar’s life from the beginning. He was named after his father’s good friend, Dave “Black Ivory King” Alexander, a Shreveport Boogie Woogie piano player whom Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter cited as a major influence on his musical style. Omar first heard Boogie Woogie music being played by his father, Tom, who was a muleskinner in logging camps around Caddo Lake and in all likelihood learned the music himself from the generation that created it in the barrel houses in that area. Because of his musical lineage, Omar was often referred to as the last “living link” to the originators of the Boogie Woogie style.
Performing as Dave Alexander on the West Coast, Omar developed a reputation as a powerful and uniquely talented artist who ranked among the greats in blues and Boogie Woogie. In the 1970s, he began performing under the name Omar Sharriff. He was a self-taught master of the piano whose recordings include “The Raven, “The Rattler,” “Dirt On the Ground,” and “Badass.” He shared the stage with and counted among his friends some of the greatest blues artists of all time, including Muddy Waters, Lloyd Glenn, T Bone Walker, B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Bo Diddley, Albert King, Nina Simone and many others. In 1977, Contemporary Keyboard magazine listed Ray Charles, Mose Allison and Omar Sharriff as its three favorite blues pianists. Omar regularly appeared at major blues festivals including San Francisco, Sacramento, and Chicago. He was featured in several European tours and at the time of his death plans were underway for a two week tour of France this Spring.
In 2010, after a 55 year absence, Omar returned to his hometown of Marshall, Texas to headline a Boogie Woogie Homecoming concert celebrating the findings of musicologist John Tennison, M.D., that historical research indicated that the origination of Boogie Woogie music could be traced to Marshall and its role as the headquarters of the Texas & Pacific Railway in the 1870s. In February of 2011, Omar Sharriff moved to Marshall.
In addition to weekly shows downtown, Omar performed regularly at Marshall’s Second Saturday events, and in several benefits and concerts. His concert with Wes Jeans was a highlight of the 2011 Fireant Festival. Omar’s music and his concert performances were unique and magical in Marshall. They brought together a diversity of people – old and young, black and white, rich and poor – and created a feeling of unity.
Omar is survived by a son, David Alexander Elam, Jr. of North Hollywood, California, a nephew, Clyde Elum of Longview, and a number of cousins in Texas and California. He was loved and appreciated by his many fans and friends in Marshall and around the world. He brought much joy to all who ever saw and heard him play. He will be greatly missed and never forgotten. The world of music has lost a great artist but the recordings he left behind will give proof to his genius forever.
The memorial service at the Marshall Convention Center Saturday, January 14 at 1 PM, will be preceded by visitation and viewing from 12 noon to 1 p.m. The ceremony will be followed by interment at Algoma Cemetery, officiated by Minister Mike Mitchell. Pallbearers are John Tennison, MD, Jack Canson, Barney Canson, Wes Jeans, Johnny Frazier, Carl Mitchell and Anthony G. Parrish. Honorary Pallbearers are John Adams, MD, Larry Daniels, MD, and Terry Gerber, MD.
Memorials may be made to Marshall Main Street, P.O. Box 698, Marshall, TX 75671.