Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Correspondent
January 25, 2010
Nobody ever knew anybody like Norton Buffalo. It was his gift to make anyone he met feel like his friend. He played on more than 180 albums, and every one of the musicians who hired him thought he was their friend.
When Buffalo was diagnosed with lung cancer in September after getting off his summer tour with the Steve Miller Band, his longtime bandleader and close friend talked to Buffalo about putting together a benefit concert.
Three days before he died, a few short weeks later, Buffalo OKd Miller’s plans to bring some of Buffalo’s friends together for a pair of concerts that took place over the weekend at Oakland’s recently refurbished Fox Theater.
He died knowing that friends and admirers like Miller, the Doobie Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Charlie Musselwhite, George Thorogood and Huey Lewis agreed to play the shows. He told Miller he wanted the proceeds to pay off his mortgage.
Over the 33 years Buffalo played in his band, Miller did more than 5,000 shows with Buffalo, singing every song together. Miller introduced Buffalo every night as “my partner in harmony.” Buffalo’s death punched a hole in his heart. His widow, Lisa Flores, visited Miller’s hotel room Saturday afternoon and gave him Buffalo’s signature hat, scarf and his favorite harmonica.
“This is hard,” he said, standing on the side of the stage after introducing the opening act, Buffalo’s own band, the Knockouts.
Buffalo’s baby sister Josephine walked up to Miller on the side of the stage and introduced herself. Miller held her in a close embrace and they talked intensely. “I can’t get my head around the fact that he’s dead,” he told her.
Who can? All night, a procession of his musician colleagues took the stage and spoke of his spirit, his generosity, his talent, his goofy humor, his extraordinary love of mankind. Bonnie Raitt delivered extravagant, heartfelt praise and then launched a wrenching bottleneck blues on acoustic guitar, “I Can’t Get Over You.”
After her performance, she huddled with Miller on the side of the stage, their foreheads practically touching, arms over each other’s shoulders. Miller emerged weeping. At that exact moment, Elvin Bishop walked up to Miller with a small gift: a bottle of homemade hot sauce from peppers Bishop grows in his Lagunitas backyard. Miller uncapped the bottle and took a swig, as Bishop’s eyes widened.
“I’ve never seen it done like that,” Bishop said.
“It stopped me from crying,” said Miller, smiling.
Bonnie R, Roy Rogers 1-22-10
Steve Miller Band & Bonnie Raitt @ The Fox Theatre
Steve Miller Band with Bonnie Raitt & Charlie Musselwhite- Crossroads
All the musicians paid their own expenses – travel, hotel, food – and some went to extraordinary lengths to be there. Ricky Peterson, Raitt’s keyboard player, missed the Friday show because of weather conditions in Minnesota, where he lives. Marin County utility keyboard man Audie de Lone substituted, but Peterson was there for the second night to play a spectacular keyboard duet with Raitt on “Nick of Time” (Huey Lewis never made it out of snowy Montana).
The shows and silent auction seemed to be on target to raise the $250,000 goal, enough to cover his medical expenses and retire his mortgage.
The five-hour concert laid out a banquet of music. Everybody played with everybody. Bishop joined the Doobie Brothers to sing his song “My Dog” and rattle off some blistering guitar. He came back to play with Miller and add still more blistering guitar. Blues harmonica virtuoso Musselwhite sat in with Raitt, the Doobies and Miller. Raitt traded molten blues guitar solos with the boys – Miller and Bishop – during the Miller band set and sang “Listen to the Music” with the Doobies.
George Thorogood played Bo Diddley with Miller, shaking Buffalo’s maracas. Michael Carabello of the original Santana band took over for Buffalo on congas in Miller’s set. Miller himself played the harmonica part to “Livin’ in the U.S.A.” – like he did before and hasn’t since Buffalo joined the band in 1977.
The party flowed backstage. With a couple hundred sporting backstage passes, old friends were seeing one another for the first time in years in every corner. Freddie Herrera, who ran the Keystone Berkeley nightclub through the ’70s and ’80s, a silver-haired fox about to celebrate his 75th birthday, knelt in front of a bench holding George Thorogood, Elvin Bishop and Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers and hugged all of them at once.
Attorney General Jerry Brown, who as mayor oversaw the downtown Oakland development that the new Fox anchors, wandered around backstage, looking a little like he showed up at the wrong party. Of course, the entire place did reek of marijuana smoke.
Buffalo was everywhere. His friends told each other stories about him. Thorogood told about Buffalo telling him that he went to prisons to give inmates music lessons on different instruments in his spare time. “Spare time?” said Thorogood. When Buffalo wasn’t with Miller, he did dates all over the country with Roy Rogers and when they weren’t working, he played smaller gigs with the Knockouts. When he was home in Paradise (Butte County), he worked in a trio with his wife.
Miller promised Buffalo he would take care of his music. The Steve Miller Band has a new album in the can with Buffalo on every track. The musicians at the Fox talked about making the Norton memorial an annual event. People are only now beginning to get around to understanding what a huge loss this is.
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