Harmonica virtuoso Norton Buffalo passed away last Friday, October 30, losing his brief battle with stage four metastasized lung cancer. Buffalo, who was diagnosed with the disease in September, performed throughout this summer, as he'd done for over 30 years, as a member of the Steve Miller Band, where he provided harp, vocal, and percussion. Miller would introduce him as his "partner in harmony."
Norton Buffalo was born in Oakland, CA to musically inclined parents -- his mother a nightclub singer, his father a harmonica player, and his great uncle an Academy Award-winning composer of music for the film The Wizard of Oz.
Acknowledged as one of the world's foremost harp players, he was proficient at chromatic and diatonic harp. Buffalo was a virtual whirlwind of performance activity over the years as a sought after studio accompanist, and leader of several aggregations of his own, including his touring band The Knockouts. Over the years he left his harmonic mark on recordings by Bonnie Raitt, The Doobie Brothers, Kenny Loggins and Bette Midler, among others. In addition to his busy touring schedule with Miller, Buffalo was also half of a popular blues/roots duo with formidable slide guitarist Roy Rogers. And recently, he released a recording with Hawaiian slack key guitarist George Kahumoko Jr. One of the most musically adaptable and skilled harmonicists ever, Buffalo crossed cultural and genre boundaries with no problem. Whether on a flat-out blues blaster or the most subtle samba, Buffalo always rose to the musical occasion with finesse.
His solo recording career began with the 1977 Capitol release "Lovin' in the Valley of the Moon." With so much of his time committed to other projects, Buffalo rarely had the time to issue his own work, but the 2000 release "King of the Highway," with The Knockouts on Blind Pig assuaged the appetites of Buffalo fans with 13 quality blues infused selections. The extroverted Buffalo had a great sense of humor. At his Knockouts shows he would stack numerous harps, telling the audience not to "try this at home" and proceeding to solo on all of them. If a show was on a weeknight, he'd tell late-staying audience members that he'd provide a next day absence from work note from "Dr. Buffalo."
In recent years he made his home in Paradise Ca. with his wife Lisa Flores, also a singer and musician. He is survived by two sons and two stepchildren, five siblings, and his father. A November memorial show is planned in his hometown of Paradise, which will feature Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings, and other acts. A tribute concert is also planned for Oakland in January and will include Miller, Raitt, Charlie Musselwhite, and the Doobie Brothers, among others. A unique instrumental voice in popular music, loved by his fans and fellow musicians, Norton will be missed. - Tali Madden
Mr. Madden escaped New York a few decades ago, and still misses his egg creams. Aside from a brief flirtation with the Desert Southwest, he's been damply ensconced for half his life in Portland, Oregon. The freelance writer has written extensively on blues and jazz for outlets including the late Blues Access magazine, contributed to the MusicHound Blues and Jazz album guides, and produced and programmed jazz broadcasts for public radio.