by Paul Liberatore
Musicians Roy Rogers, Huey Lewis and Bonnie Raitt will gather in Oakland for memorial concerts on Jan. 22 and 23 for their friend Norton Buffalo, who died in October at age 58.
Next weekend, some of the biggest names in rock gather at the Fox Theatre in Oakland to honor a special person in Bay Area music, the late harmonica virtuoso Norton Buffalo, a consummate musician, an all around good guy and an absolutely unforgettable character.
I spoke to three of Norton’s musician friends – Bonnie Raitt, Huey Lewis and slide guitarist Roy Rogers – about their memories of him. They will all be on the bill of the sold-out memorial concerts, Jan. 22 and 23, both benefits for Buffalo’s family.
Norton, who was in Steve Miller’s band for 33 years, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer that had spread to his brain at the end of last summer’s tour with Miller. As he struggled to breathe, he said “it seemed that there just wasn’t enough air on the planet.” But, with his trademark good humor and positive attitude, he concentrated on getting well.
“I am putting all of my energy into healing my body, focusing all of my spirit on divine beauty, love and positive thinking,” he wrote on his Web site. “With the grace of God, I will rise above and get through this.”
When he openly announced his illness, he was overwhelmed by a tremendous outpouring of love and support from his friends and fans.
“He and I had some great conversations after his diagnosis,” Raitt recalled. “He was so positive. He finished our last conversation doing his famous Walter Brennan imitation. He was giving me a pep talk.”
Despite his great attitude and his attempts to heal using both Western medicine and alternative treatments, Buffalo died Oct. 30, less than two months after he was diagnosed. He was 58.
A lot of us, friends and fans alike, are still having a hard time getting our heads around the fact that he’s gone.
“I knew he was really sick, but it caught everybody by surprise how quickly he passed away,” Rogers told me. “But in Norton’s great style, he said he was going to think positive thoughts and live for as long as he could.”
Buffalo was such a memorable human being that I clearly remember the first time I saw him, and the last.
The first was in the mid-1970s when he played a club in Fairfax with his band, the Stampede, and just knocked me out. His band swung like mad, and at a time when we were trying to look like urban cowboys, he was cutting-edge cool in his retro clothes. “He had a very distinct personality and look,” is the way Raitt put it.
And I’d never heard anyone play the harmonica like Norton Buffalo.
“Quite simply put, he’s one of the best harmonica players ever,” Lewis said. “Since I play the harp (harmonica), too, you’d think there would be some kind of rivalry. Well first of all he was twice as good as I was. And he was such a sweet guy. We fell in love with each other in a way.”
Rogers, who recorded three duet albums with Buffalo, called him “the best of the best.”
If you want to see and hear what they’re talking about, Google the YouTube video of Buffalo’s incredible solo on the song “Runaway” with Raitt‘s band in a live 1977 performance on the TV show “Midnight Special.” Norton plays four harmonicas in different keys, pulling them out of his pockets in quick succession like a magician producing rabbits from a hat.
“Of course we can do that in the recording studio, but how he pulled that off live I’ll never know,” Raitt said, still sounding amazed. “That’s when we became buddies. He was incredibly musical.”
If you go to Buffalo’s Web site, you can see the various causes he supported. As evidence of his political and social activism, the last time I saw him was at the Stop the Spray benefit concert in Sausalito a little more than a year ago.
He was his usual, gregarious self, telling me about how happy he was with his wife, Lisa (he called her “my truly amazing angel”), and with their life together after moving from Novato to Paradise, his aptly named hometown in the Sierra foothills.
“He was in such a good place personally,” Rogers recalled. “That’s why it’s all the more sad. He’d met the love of his life. He said Lisa was the best thing that ever happened to him, and he meant it.”
The memorial concerts are sold out. But for anyone who would like information on how to donate to Norton’s family, go online at www.norton-buffalo.com (don’t forget the hyphen).
“He was such a beloved man,” Roy said. “He befriended so many people from so many walks of life. What a legacy to have been loved as much as he was.”Marin Independent Journal For more about his career:
The Official Norton Buffalo website
Norton’s MySpace page