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Music legend's death saddens fans across the nation

By Terri Richardson
Jan. 10, 2012 at 1:50 a.m.

<p>Boogie woogie piano legend Omar Sharriff, 73, died Sunday.
Reared in Marshall as David Alexander Elam, he was living in
Sacramento, Calif., until last year, when the city offered him a
place to live and gigs to play.</p>

Boogie woogie piano legend Omar Sharriff, 73, died Sunday, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, leaving the communities of Marshall and music to mourn a man who spent a lifetime in practice of his art form.

"From the calls I received last night and this morning, there seems to be a ground-swell of feeling for having a major funeral for him," said Jack Canson, a close friend and associate of Sharriff for Marshall's Birthplace of Boogie Woogie Project.

The Marshall Police Department was called to Sharriff's residence Sunday morning in the 700 block of Spring Street, where he was found unresponsive and later pronounced dead by Justice of the Peace Kenneth Alford, according to an MPD release.

Police do not suspect foul play, and Judge Alford ordered an autopsy as the investigation is ongoing with Marshall's Criminal Investigation Division.

"It was a self-inflicted gunshot wound," said Canson. "We do not want people to think anyone broke in and shot him. He was secure there."

Reared in Marshall as David Alexander Elam, he moved away in the 1950s due to racial persecution to live in California. He was living in Sacramento, Calif., until last year, when the city offered him a place to live and gigs to play, as well as a community to offer caring and support.

Sharriff's legacy as a musician and boogie woogie artist from Marshall will continue to receive honors as the genre's promotion continues.

"We anticipate the Birthplace of Boogie Woogie Project to go forward," said City Manager Frank Johnson. "Omar's loss is very tragic, and we'll have to figure out how to continue without him, but we fully intend to continue and in a way that honors him and recognizes him for his accomplishments and contributions."

Sharriff had two very different sides, which one could see depending on whether he was playing or was not playing.

"It was always a lot of fun to watch Omar relate to the audience," said Johnson. "It was like he was friends with everybody in the audience. I don't know that I've ever seen another performer do that as well as Omar."

Canson also spoke of the unifying effect of Sharriff's music, how an intimate audience or packed house turned out people from all backgrounds: black and white, young and old, rich and poor."

"He was a musical genius trapped in an angry man's body or an angry man trapped in a musical genius' body," said Canson, who worked closely with Sharriff and to help him prepare a new band which was planning last week to record and go on tour.

"From the research and conversations, even from the 80s and 70s news interviews he gave, Omar was totally wrapped up in his orchestry. If he wasn't playing, something was wrong," Canson said. "He paid quite a price for his unusual prodigious ability to play piano."

Sharriff was known as a living link between the influence of boogie woogie in modern jazz and blues to Marshall's history as the origin of the lively boogie woogie sound. He gave side lessons on chord progressions as he played or recalled performances he played alongside many of the world's top roots musicians.

"In every review I ever read, he was called one of the greatest, the greatest unknown and 'if only more people knew this guy,'" said Canson. "So why did he never quite take advantage of that? It had a lot to do with self-doubt and depression. He had long periods of strangeness that made him unable to share in happiness. You have to make room in your life for happiness. When he was playing music, he was fine."

Accounts of Sharriff's own life from Live Blues magazine's 1994 article tell of heartache and troubles from being shot by his lover to the intensity of a nation embroiled over the questions of race and equality.

"He did always play and create from the heart and he did have a wounded heart," said Canson. "But he also had a much better life for his last year in Marshall than other times."

When Canson first introduced Sharriff back to his hometown in the summer of 2010, he had been living in constant despair and on the good graces of a few holdout blues fans, supplementing his welfare, to pay his rent and utilities, said Canson.

In what may have been the most compassionate act by the city in relation to Sharriff, he was given a city-owned apartment, routine gigs and a chance to reconnect with the home of his youth as well as his music.

Sharriff was suffering from bad health and had heart bypass surgery in 2006 and other surgeries more recently, which caused him a great deal of pain.

"He was suffering from a lot of pain and was depressed that the procedures they had done had not brought the relief he hoped," said Canson. "He was saying that he was just hurting as bad as ever and worse every day. Physical pain is very hard to deal with, and it got to him, I guess."



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