Local harmonica legend Norton Buffalo dies

Norton Buffalo, a harmonica virtuoso and "musician's musician" who played with many of the biggest names in the music business, died Friday following a brief battle with lung cancer.

Buffalo, 58, called Sonoma County home for decades, living with his family in a Glen Ellen farmhouse.

He died Friday afternoon at Feather River Hospital in Paradise, said friends. Buffalo and his wife, Lisa Flores, moved from Glen Ellen to Paradise, near Chico, about four years ago.

"For years, he was a mainstay of the Sonoma County music scene here. We all had hopes that he could beat (the cancer)," said Bill Bowker, longtime Sonoma County DJ, music promoter and acquaintance of Buffalo's.

"He was just one of these wonderful characters we've had and been blessed with in Sonoma County," Bowker said.

Buffalo's musical career took off in the 1970s when he played rock 'n' roll harmonica and sang harmony with the Steve Miller Band. He continued playing in the band until this past summer.

His Sonoma County ties came out in his music, including his first solo album, "Lovin' In the Valley of the Moon," released in 1977.

While still a key member of the Steve Miller Band, Buffalo also established himself in his own right as a one-of-a-kind harmonica player who could take on all musical genres - from blues, rock, jazz and honkey tonk to bluegrass and Beethoven.

Over the years, he accompanied a who's who of musical greats, from the Grateful Dead to Bonnie Raitt, the Doobie Brothers and many others.

"Buffalo was certainly one of the greatest harmonica players there is. It's not up for question," said longtime musical partner and friend Roy Rogers. "Look at all the records he was on. He played with just about everybody."

"People just felt better when they heard him play," said Rogers, who toured worldwide with Buffalo in a pairing of the harmonica great with the renowned slide guitarist.

"A musician, a man went way too soon," Rogers said Sunday.

"His death is going to leave a huge void (in the music world)," said Gary Silva, another longtime friend and musician, " not only in the local community, but in the national and worldwide community."

"He was a musician's musician. Maybe he wasn't a household name, but amongst musicians, his name was well known," said Silva, a Sonoma Valley resident.

Buffalo also appeared in several TV shows and movies, including "The Rose" with Bette Midler and "Heaven's Gate" with Kris Kristofferson.

He had his own band, Norton & the Knockouts, played more than 20 years with Rogers and also had a trio called Norton and Friends.

Beyond his musical talent, Buffalo was also remembered for his uncanny ability to nail a Walter Brennan impersonation, his flamboyant taste in clothing and his willingness to do the right thing for others, including playing many benefit concerts over the years.

"He was always fighting the good fight. Always for the underdog," said Silva, a drummer who frequently played with Buffalo on tours. They traveled together throughout the Pacific Northwest in an RV often driven by Buffalo.

A prolific songwriter, he was always working on a new lyrics. It wasn't uncommon for Buffalo to shout for Silva "to take the wheel quick" and he'd pull out a book and start writing, Silva said.

This summer, Buffalo was touring with the Steve Miller Band, and by late August, he was having trouble breathing.

A few days later, he was diagnosed with a late stage lung cancer that had spread to his brain.

Buffalo announced his illness on his Web site. But he also expressed a positive outlook and said he appreciated the support he was receiving.

Silva said he spoke with him just last week.

"... he sounded great, so strong. It really gave us all a lot of hope," said Silva. "He had a lot of people praying for him all over the world. The support was just incredible."

Just days from his death, Buffalo told Silva he was working on new songs. "&‘I got a lot of music still in me,'" Buffalo assured his friend.

Buffalo went into a coma Thursday night and was put on life support, then died at about 3 p.m. Friday, Silva said.

Buffalo was born in Oakland and raised in Richmond. He was part of a musical family and took up the harmonica as a boy, according to his Web site.

Bowker, who offers a blues show on Sunday nights on KRSH, dedicated time Sunday to Buffalo's blues side and today planned to honor the harmonica great's other genres.

Although he'd moved away, Buffalo frequently came back to Sonoma County to see friends and play locally.

"We did see him often," said Bowker. "Not just musically, those of us who've been in the county so long have fond memories of him."

As well as his wife, Buffalo leaves three grown children, daughter Sierra, and sons Aisah and Elias.

Family members are planning a service in Paradise, as well as a service in Sonoma County, said Rogers.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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