Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Omar Sharriff a/k/a Dave Alexander

The video of Chuck Berry on ABC's Wide World of Entertainment (below) aired December 8, 1972.  I remember watching it.  The song St. James Infirmary, above, was recorded three days prior, on December 5, 1972.  You should listen.  I would see Dave Alexander the first time a few months later at an on campus coffee house at San Jose State University, where I did time in 1973 and 1974.  The coffee house was free.  It was run by someone smart enough to bring in Alexander and Mark Naftalin for shows that spring.  And Alexander's show was seared into my brainstem.  It was some very serious blues.  He had a serious demeanor that day.  (Maybe it was the crowd, which numbered about half a dozen.)  He didn't smile much, or chat, or try to "entertain."  But there was a fine piano, and he played some extraordinary blues and boogie woogie on it. A few days or weeks later I found the promotional album you see in this video-- "For Review Purposes, Not For Sale"-- which I bought for less than $3.  Dave Alexander got nothing from me at the show, nothing for the record.  That's the way it too often works.

When I told my sister Maggie about Dave Alexander the next weekend I learned that she and her husband were fans and went to see Alexander often at Minnie's Can Do Club in San Francisco's Fillmore District.  That was undoubtedly a happier place to see him, with a trio, and dancers.  I was too young, but they got my sister Ann in one time because, hey, the rules weren't made for young women, they were made for boys.

I saw Alexander one more time at the first or second Sacramento Blues Festival.  It was a great festival, with Alexander, L.C. "Good Rockin'" Robinson and Queen Ida Gilroy, but though big hearted, the organizers were not so good on details.  Alexander was given one of those blond wood uprights you'd see at primary schools. He grimaced and grumbled, but played great music.

For a while Alexander actually moved to Sacramento.  I didn't live there any more, but I googled him and learned that he was living and performing there under the name Omar Sharriff and the nickname Omar the Magnificent.  I think that one of the articles I read mentioned a history of mental and emotion difficulties.  I wrote about him on my other blog, Can't Be Satisfied.

Then one day last December I found a tiny newspaper article explaining that Omar was moving back home to his hometown in Texas, a place called Marshall, where he'd been given the position of Artist in Residence. The town was giving him a place to stay and steady work.  Once he did a show with Robert Baldori, who played on Chuck Berry's "Back Home" and "San Francisco Dues" albums.  (The show was actually with Seeley and Baldori-- Baldori's current two piano boogie woogie group.)  I followed Alexander's progress as best I could, and enjoyed the videos from Marshall.  Here's the last one I saw:

I love this video.  I love the "easy" way Omar has of playing such difficult stuff.  I love the drummer.  I love the repartee.  I love the way the kid on guitar looks like he might die when told to play a third verse.  (He was blessed, undoubtedly knows it, and will probably never forget his apprenticeship in the blues.)

When I saw the video, a few weeks ago, I actually looked up Marshall again, saw it's proximity to Shreveport, Memphis, New Orleans and St. Louis, and tried once again to mentally chart my cross country drive to musical nirvana.  (If I were a kid without kids I'd have done it years ago.)

Anyway, Omar Sharriff ended his own life yesterday, at the age of 73.

I don't know anything about Sharriff, but I was hoping he'd found some real happiness back home in Marshall, a town he'd fled as a youth.  I know that he was a man of huge talent.  My guess is that, like many great artists, he lived in poverty at the edge of greatness.  This is a man who played with Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker, and who, in his prime, probably got $50 or $75 to entertain a handful of us at a coffee house in San Jose.  (A few minutes after posting, I found a great article by Alexander on Facebook.  Check it out HERE.)

It's weird that December, 1972 came up twice for me yesterday.  Must be the stars.

And I thank the people of Marshall for their efforts to support one of their own during his last year.  It's what every community should do.

In the meantime, I'm getting ready to go to Missouri.  And still planning the road trip.  Maybe with a kid.

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