Saying good-bye to Norton Buffalo
By Jaime O’Neill
In remembering the late Norton Buffalo, Charlie Musselwhite, friend and fellow harp maestro, said: “I can’t think of any harmonica player I ever knew who exhibited such pure joy with his music. What a nice gift he gave to us every time he played. I know he inspired many people to take up music and harmonica. He left the world a better place. No doubt about it.”
Buffalo, one of the world’s premier harmonica players, died last Friday (Oct. 30) in Paradise, a victim of lung cancer. He was 58. His family was with him when he died.
From somewhere out on the road he and Buffalo had traveled together for so long, slide guitarist Roy Rogers added this comment: “Norton was like a brother, not only to me, but to a lot of people, which is a testament to what kind of man he was. Besides being a great musician, he was truly a great human being. As a musical partner he cannot be replaced. We performed and traveled around the world together for over 20 years. I shall miss him greatly.”
Buffalo was a good man who brightened the world wherever he went, not only with his music, but also with his irrepressible spirit. He and his wife, Lisa Flores-Buffalo, used to play quiet little gigs at one of Buffalo’s favorite places—Angelo’s Cucina Trinicria, a Chico restaurant where a picture of a younger Norton Buffalo adorns the wall of the entryway. The couple played there because they loved the food, and they loved Angelo, the man who cooked the food.
“I’m playing for my supper,” Buffalo told me once, and he gave the same love and devotion to those quiet Sicilian songs that he did to the upbeat rockers and blues tunes he played on the world’s bigger stages, on those nights he shared as a member of the Steve Miller Band, or with Roy Rogers, or with his own band, the Knockouts.
When he came off of his last tour with Steve Miller, he was already dying of the cancer that was diagnosed soon after he got home. I wrote about that diagnosis for this paper, but I don’t think Buffalo was too happy with the dire tone of the piece.
“You Irish guys,” he teased me in a phone call, “always eager to hold a wake.”
He knew how sick he was, but by his very nature he wasn’t about to give up, and he wasn’t going to be glum about his prospects. On his Web site, he made a few entries about the progression of his disease. On Sept. 2, he posted a note in celebration of his 34 years of making music with his friend, Steve Miller, but he added: “when we arrived in New York City on the morning of August 17, I knew that something was seriously wrong with my body. I spent several hours seeking out a pulmonary doctor who would see me.
“I found a great doctor, and he diagnosed that I had pneumonia … and that I had probably had it for the entire summer tour. I was prescribed a course of antibiotics and considering that we only had 7 shows to go … and that I’d already made it through the whole summer with this bug untreated, that I could take the drugs and tough it out till the tour was finished, as I would certainly be getting better each day. The following shows went about the same, still very hard to breathe. Where Is My Air?”
The progression of his illness was swift and merciless.
On Oct. 22 Buffalo posted his last comment: “I truly believe I will heal,” he wrote. “I am so blessed to have my truly amazing angel, Lisa, by my side to help keep me on my path and to care for me … and I have an army of friends, musical brothers and sisters as well as thousands of fans from around the world who are keeping me in their thoughts and prayers as I move into these perilous waters.”
Since he relocated to Butte County, Buffalo has given a series of benefits at the Paradise Performing Arts Center, raising money for good causes. On Nov. 22, there will be one last Buffalo benefit show there (which is already sold out), but this time the proceeds and the proceedings will be for Norton Buffalo.
Tickets for the memorial concert Nov. 22 at the Paradise Performing Arts Center are sold out. Another memorial show is planned for Jan. 23 at the Fox Theater in Oakland starring the Steve Miller Band and the Doobie Brothers, along with Huey Lewis, George Thorogood, Charlie Musselwhite and Bonnie Raitt.