You’ve probably heard of boogie woogie. Its distinctive bass riffs pop up in Lead Belly’s guitar playing, Elvis Presley’s version of Otis Blackwell’s “All Shook Up,” and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Rude Mood.” You can hear its strong influence in the music of pop and jazz pianists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Dr. John, and Oscar Peterson. And according to Little Richard, boogie woogie was one of the foundations of rock and roll. “Everything I play is boogie woogie,” he said when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. “Rock and roll is just up-tempo boogie woogie!”
What you may not know is that boogie woogie was born right here in the Lone Star State—specifically, in the East Texas drinking and dancing establishments known as barrelhouses. After years of research, I believe I’ve zeroed in on the town where boogie woogie was first played, in the early 1870s—or at least the town at the center of the area where boogie woogie was first played. It’s not like people were keeping official records about that sort of thing 150 years ago.
So what exactly is boogie woogie? It’s a piano-based form of dance music, a cousin of the blues and ragtime, and what’s most distinctive about it is the relationship between the pianist’s left and right hands. A boogie woogie pianist learns to build up an unusual amount of independence of each hand so that each can do its own thing. And when both parts are played together, it sounds like the two hands are fiercely competing with each other. In the most complex boogie woogie, as is also true of some of the most intricate classical music, the interaction of the hands produces complex rhythms that aren’t present in either hand alone.
I’ve been mesmerized by boogie woogie ever since I was a little kid growing up in Texarkana. In 1974 I was in first grade and had already been casually playing piano—mostly the sort of elementary melodies that are taught to beginning students—when I heard two girls at a pancake social perform a boogie woogie tune, each executing one hand’s part. I knew immediately that this was the music I wanted to play.
By the time I was eleven, I had been taking classical piano lessons for three years and was playing some simple boogie woogie duets with a friend. I thought I had gotten pretty good. But it was time to face a greater challenge, so my father introduced me to Lee Ree Sullivan, a local boogie woogie musician. Because Lee Ree didn’t have a car, we’d drive over to his home, in the black neighborhood known as Iron Mountain, and bring him to my grandmother’s house, which had a grand piano. He would play, and I’d ask him to show me how to do what he did. One day, he taught me a left-hand chord progression, or bass figure, called “the Marshall,” which he believed originated around the town of Marshall, about seventy miles south of Texarkana. The Marshall progression might not sound like much to most listeners—it’s just a four-note ascending unit that repeats with key changes over a twelve-bar blues progression—but it’s arguably the precursor to many of the bass figures—Lee Ree taught me a dozen—that came to be identified with boogie woogie.
By my senior year of high school I had been studying with Lee Ree for several years when I came across a fact that changed my life once again. Our local Kiwanis Club had commissioned a Texarkana-themed board game inspired by Trivial Pursuit. One of the cards noted that the term “boogie” supposedly originated in Texarkana between 1890 and 1930. I had known that the Marshall bass line likely originated in the area, but until that moment I hadn’t realized that boogie woogie may have as well. Over the course of the next year, I spent countless hours talking with Lee Ree and the local historian Wilbur Smith about the music’s roots.
When I left for college the next year, I backed off from my search. I never stopped playing, though. Boogie woogie has always been my escape, a spiritual and religious practice, like yoga.
After I started medical school, I resumed my investigation into the history of the music. There was plenty of research that indicated that boogie woogie came from somewhere in the Piney Woods of East Texas and that it was invented by the African Americans who worked in the lumber and railroad industries. I came to realize that during the early 1870s—when boogie woogie was first being played—the city of Marshall was a railroad hub that boasted a thriving lumber industry and a large black population.
According to the stories I was told, bosses at the railroad and lumber camps would bring in old ramshackle pianos for entertainment, which some of the workers—virtually all of them recently emancipated slaves—would play. The musicians apparently drew on the sounds around them. One sound they surely heard was the chug of a steam locomotive, which had a four-beat rhythm: CHUFF-chuff-chuff-chuff! It’s not too big a leap to get from that to that four-note Marshall bass figure.
Had I discovered the most probable birthplace of boogie woogie? Well, there’s more evidence. The earliest first-person account of hearing boogie woogie in Texas comes from the great folk and blues singer Lead Belly, who reported hearing it in 1899 somewhere near the border of Harrison County, Texas, and Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Marshall is the county seat of Harrison County, and it’s about twenty miles west of the Louisiana border. And the dozen or so bass figures that Lee Ree Sullivan taught me? They all seem to have originated around the Marshall area. In fact, the farther from Marshall each figure emerged, the more complex it got, as if someone in Marshall had created something relatively simple that was then elaborated upon as others took it up and tried to make it their own. For example, the Marshall bass figure is a simple four beats, but the ubiquitous Swampoodle bass figure (reportedly developed in a predominantly black area of Texarkana known as Swampoodle neighborhood) is eight beats of walking broken octaves to the bar.
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It’s impossible to say with absolute certainty that the big breakthrough happened within Marshall’s city limits, but it almost certainly happened in the vicinity of the town. I felt confident enough that in 2010 I took my research to Marshall’s civic leaders. Their city, I told them, should be designated “the Birthplace of Boogie-woogie.”
Now, there’s one thing you have to understand about Marshall: it wasn’t the most progressive city in terms of race. Harrison County had the largest population of slaves of any county in Texas at the outset of the Civil War, and during the first two decades of the twentieth century it was the site of at least a dozen lynchings. Throughout much of the twentieth century the city was split largely along racial lines. But it was also the site of some of the earliest and most successful civil rights struggles in Texas. James Farmer, one of the most important national civil rights leaders in the sixties, was born and raised in Marshall.
So the city leaders weren’t exactly shocked when I told them about a man named Dave Alexander Elam, a world-famous boogie woogie player who had grown up in Marshall and, appalled by the racism he experienced there, left to join the Navy in 1955, came home briefly, and left again in 1957, swearing never to return. (He was particularly rattled after witnessing an incident in which a black man was beaten by police in the middle of town; he realized there was nothing he could do to stop it.)
Elam moved to Oakland, California, and played and recorded with everyone from Muddy Waters to Buddy Guy, released albums as “Dave Alexander,” wrote articles for Living Blues magazine, and converted to Islam, changing his name to “Omar Sharriff.”
How highly regarded was he? In 1977 Contemporary Keyboard magazine ranked him the second-greatest living blues pianist in the world. The first was Ray Charles.
Of course, most people in Marshall had never heard of Omar Sharriff. But when I told the city leaders that he was the most important living link to Marshall’s boogie woogie heritage, they asked me to invite him back for a homecoming concert. So I headed out to California.
When I found Omar, who was then living in Sacramento, he was teetering on the edge of homelessness. His only regular music gig had dried up a few weeks earlier, and he couldn’t pay his bills. He suffered from multiple ailments, including opioid and alcohol addiction, as well as chronic leg pain caused by vein harvesting that had been conducted for his coronary artery bypass. He was at risk of being evicted from his apartment.
Despite these challenges, Omar gave me a private performance in his apartment on the only keyboard he had available, a dilapidated Kurzweil digital piano with broken keys. As he played, a bottle of prescription medication bounced around on top of the keyboard.
“How highly regarded was Omar Sharriff? In 1977 Contemporary Keyboard magazine ranked him the second-greatest living blues pianist in the world. The first was Ray Charles.”
I was stunned. Despite Omar’s physical issues, the music poured out of him. He played “Parchman Farm,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “What’d I Say,” and “Misty”—two blues songs, an R&B classic, and a pop standard—the first three of which evidenced a strong boogie woogie influence.
When he was done, I asked if he was willing to go back to the city he had sworn he’d never return to. It took some time to get him to believe that the town that had made his early life so difficult now wanted to honor him. But eventually he realized that I was on the level.
On June 11, 2010, Omar Sharriff returned to Marshall for a homecoming concert at the Visual Art Center, a 350-seat venue packed with an integrated audience, a rare occurrence in Marshall, even in the twenty-first century. (Marshall’s NAACP president, Charles Wilson, remarked that the concert was by far the most integrated entertainment event she had seen in town.) Classmates from Omar’s alma mater, Pemberton High School, were there, as were city leaders.
Omar was enthusiastically introduced by the concert’s producer, Jack Canson, a screenwriter and publicist who had been a student at the all-white Marshall Junior High School in 1955, when Omar left town on a Greyhound bus. There was an air of apprehension as Omar took the stage; could this elderly man, clearly frail beyond his years, live up to the billing he’d been given?
Omar began by playing solo on the Steinway grand that had been brought in from Shreveport for the concert. He started with a composition of his own, “Fingers of Fire,” and then built a case for the importance of boogie woogie on the origins of rock and roll by drawing connections between tunes such as “Cow Cow Boogie” and “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” and early rock songs such as “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” His lucid playing and his expert commentary between songs made the link between the two genres crystal clear.
Omar was then joined by a trio of local backup musicians, and you could feel the audience’s collective pulse start to quicken. One of the concert’s sponsors was a notoriously straitlaced man who was known to avoid gatherings where alcohol was served and dancing was encouraged. When Omar began singing a song called “It’s the Booty Not the Beauty,” many heads turned to see how this gentleman would react. And everyone was surprised to see him and his wife all smiles, clapping their hands and tapping their feet. When the concert ended, the entire crowd stood up for a rousing ovation, and Omar had tears in his eyes.
Eight months later, Omar left California and settled in Marshall for good. The city named him an “artist-in-residence” and provided him a rent-free apartment with all utilities paid. He played shows weekly at the OS² Pub. Although I lived in San Antonio, I would travel to Marshall to see him perform, and he always seemed happy. The kindness the town was belatedly showing him seemed to have gone a long way toward healing old wounds.
Sadly, Omar’s medical problems never let up. He was still addicted to opioids and alcohol, and his leg still hurt him terribly. Doctors did everything they could to treat him, but on January 8, 2012, about a year and a half after his triumphant homecoming concert, Omar Sharriff took his life. He was 73 years old. Omar’s memorial service was held at the Marshall Convention Center, and hundreds came to pay their respects. Jack Canson opened the service by noting that Omar “told me many times that the greatest and most surprising thing he’d ever experienced was returning to Marshall and finding so much love, so much admiration, everywhere he went. Everyone knew who he was. Everyone called him “the boogie woogie man.’’ Several area musicians performed “The Golden Time of Life,” “The Sky Is Crying,” and two of Omar’s originals, “The Raven” and “House Built by the Blues.” For the close of the service, I joined in on a boogie woogie jam.
Today, Marshall boasts a Texas historical marker declaring it the birthplace of boogie woogie, which I regard as the most influential musical genre to ever come out of Texas. The town is also the resting place of Omar Sharriff; the headstone that sits atop his grave in Algoma Cemetery will allow current and future pilgrims to pay their respects to a great American artist whose life speaks volumes about the story of our country: about the indignities of racism; the joyous art that black men and women create in the face of persecution; and the role that music can play in the work, still unfinished, that we’re doing to repair so much of our past.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.
John Tennison is a psychiatrist and boogie woogie musician who lives in San Antonio.
The Stories Behind the Music
Texas musical luminaries reveal the family histories, powerful influences, and big breaks that made them the artists they are today. Read more.