Wednesday, February 01, 2012

RIP The Magnificent David Alexander-Omar Sharriff

Word came down in early january of the death of pianist-vocalist David Alexander who was also known as Omar Sharriff and Omar the Magnificent. A blues and boogie woogie pianist was born in Shreveport Louisiana on March 10, 1938, although raised in Marshall, Texas.. While his father was also a pianist, he was self-taught for most part. After serving a stint in the Navy he moved to Oakland, California and played with a variety of San Francisco area musicians as well as touring musicians including Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Witherspoon, Muddy waters, Buddy Guy and Albert Collins.

As Dave Alexander he made his first recordings on a compilation for World Pacific, Oakland Blues that also included L.C. “Good Rockin’” and Lafayette Thomas. He displayed mastery of the boogie woogie and blues tradition, a gift for sophisticated lyrics and an urbane vocal style. A couple of albums followed for Arhoolie followed (and the Arhoolie CDs which may be the easiest of his recordings to find today although have Mercy Records website,, shows them as available) again displaying his gift with words as well as his earthy, yet sophisticated approach. In 1976 he changed his name to Omar Khayam and started performing as Omar The Magnificent, and later as Omar Sharriff.

Moving to Sacramento, California, he spent much the remainder of his life performing there. He recorded three albums for the Have Mercy label which apparently are out-of-print although copies may be located at used stores and the likes. He returned to Marshall, Texas to perform in late 2010 and relocated there in February 2011. He died on January 8, 2012, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot. My sources for the biographical information is his wikipedia page and a TV station’s news story, I previously posted the following review of one of his Have Mercy Recordings. In light of his recent passing, thought it appropriate to repost it.

The career of pianist Omar Sharriff demonstrates that talent and originality does not necessarily result in success. One of the most distinctive blues pianists, an evocative vocalist, and a songwriter whose lyrics capture the bittersweet reality of modern urban life, it may be Sharriff’s refusal to compromise his beliefs, or the rawness of his blues, that led to his relative lack of recordings, or commercial success in music.

Black Widow Spider, his 1994 release on the Have Mercy label mixed striking versions of classic blues with powerful originals. Fingers of Fate is a splendid piano boogie, while Seven Years of Torture depicts his years living in Clovis, a town full of rednecks and fruit growers, and a very bad romance. In contrast, Fire of Fury features his rap with a forceful commentary on the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots. He personalizes Ray Charles’ Greenbacks, and the Joe Williams-Count Basie classic recording Smack Dab in the Middle, reworked almost like Don’t Start Me To Talkin’ with harp. His choice of covers shows him not bound by categories but his version of All Across the Watchtower is spoiled by messy blues-rock guitar. Sharriff is a fascinating pianist who mixes jazz, gospel and other idioms with the blues. Saxophonist Steve Ghundi is a first rate player whose accompaniments and solos are thoughtful, and responsive to Sharriff’s lead.

This was an important album by an major, under recorded artist.

I checked and the Have Mercy website lists this as available. It would be worth checking the website for order info. This is revised version of the review from October 1994 Jazz & Blues Report.

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