Omar Shariff, blues pianist and “Boogie Woogie Man,” was born David Alexander Elam on March 10, 1938, in Shreveport, Louisiana, to Tom and Susie (Hill) Elam. Shariff was originally named after his father’s good friend David “Black Ivory King” Alexander, a Shreveport boogie-woogie piano player. His family soon moved to Marshall, Texas, where his parents encouraged him to play music in church. His father Tom was also a boogie-woogie piano player in addition to his day job as a muleskinner at logging camps around Caddo Lake. Shariff had one younger brother, Donald. The town of Marshall, Texas, is thought to be the home place of boogie-woogie blues music, which gave Shariff ample opportunities to learn with the best, such as local legend Floyd Dixon. This connection caused him to often be referred to as the last living link to the originators of the boogie-woogie style. Shariff apparently had one formal piano lesson from well-known Marshall piano teacher Ella Mae Wills.
Shariff graduated from Pemberton High School in Marshall in 1955 and then joined the United States Navy. He served for two years before relocating to Oakland, California, where he lived for ten years before moving to San Francisco. After moving to California, Shariff, who still went by David Alexander Elam, dropped his last name and began playing music as simply David Alexander. He performed with a variety of legends—from Buddy Guy, T-Bone Walker, and Muddy Waters to Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Weatherspoon, and Albert King—and even toured internationally.
In 1968 Shariff recorded his first songs for the World Pacific label release of Oakland Blues, a compilation of artists from the city of Oakland. He performed at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in 1970 and played at the San Francisco Blues Festival multiple times. His performances also included shows at the Fillmore West and the Chicago Blues Festival. During the 1970s, Shariff released a pair of albums for Arhoolie Records, The Rattler (1972) and The Dirt on the Ground (1973), under his birth name, David Alexander. He was the pianist in L.C. “Good Rockin” Robinson’s band in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Shariff had converted to Islam in the early 1960s and in the mid-1970s changed his name, first to Omar Khayam (performing as Omar the Magnificent), then later to Omar Shariff (resembling the Egyptian actor, Omar Sharif).
Shariff first officially recorded under his new name in 1991 when he made the classic recording The Raven on the Arhoolie label. He was nominated for a W. C. Handy Award in 1993. Between 1993 and 2000 he recorded three other highly-acclaimed albums for Have Mercy Records. In 1993 Shariff left San Francisco and moved to Sacramento, a city he complained about in his song, “Seven Years of Torture,” on his album Black Widow Spider (2000). In it he lamented, “It’s been seven years of torture in this town of fruit pickers and rednecks. This a funky little town where people like to deal from the bottom of the deck.” This was just one of many times Shariff voiced dissatisfaction through a song. Shariff later made several television appearances, including in Fresno and Modesto, California, and wrote several articles for the Living Blues magazine. Thorough the years, Shariff used his songs and articles to promote his advocacy for the blues, boogie-woogie, and African-American culture at large. During his lifetime, Shariff married twice and fathered two sons, but information on his family life is scant. Contemporary Keyboard magazine listed Ray Charles, Mose Allison, and Omar Shariff as its three favorite blues pianists in 1977.
In 2007 Shariff’s performances waned after undergoing double bypass heart surgery, which resulted in extreme financial struggles. During the last few years of his life, he survived primarily on Social Security checks and the occasional low-paying local gigs and out of town performances. In March 2010 psychiatrist and boogie-woogie musicologist John Tennison contacted Shariff, who was living in poverty in Sacramento. Tennison’s historical research had traced the origins of boogie-woogie music to Marshall, and its citizens were eager to capitalize on this heritage to attract tourism and new growth for the town. On behalf of Marshall’s citizens, Tennison invited Shariff back to Marshall to play a concert funded by their convention and visitors bureau. Shariff returned to headline a Boogie Woogie Homecoming concert, and June 11, 2010, was declared “Omar Shariff Day” in Marshall.
Subsequently in 2011, Shariff moved back to Marshall, and he was made the town’s artist-in-residence and ambassador for its boogie-woogie heritage. He performed shows downtown weekly and regularly at Marshall’s Second Saturday events. He was a highlight of the 2011 Fireant Festival with Wes Jeans. Additionally, Shariff was a headliner at the 2011 T-Bone Walker Blues Fest in Linden, Texas, and formed a trio with bassist Carl Mitchell and drummer Mike Mitchell. Shariff died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Marshall on January 8, 2012, due to chronic pain. His memorial service was held at the Marshall Convention Center, and he was interred at Algoma Cemetery.