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Monday, November 2, 2009

It is true: you have to live like it's your last day and make plans like you're gonna live forever. Norton Buffalo has become immortal. Rest in Peace, maestro.

(11-01) 21:11 PST PARADISE (BUTTE COUNTY) -- Norton Buffalo, harmonica virtuoso, one-of-a-kind performer and consummate accompanist to the stars, died Friday night from cancer in Feather River Hospital, near his home in Paradise (Butte County). He was 58.

Mr. Buffalo, who appeared on more than 180 albums and spent 33 years as a member of the Steve Miller Band, was diagnosed with cancer in September. His life will be celebrated Jan. 23 at the Fox Theater in Oakland in a benefit concert starring the Steve Miller Band and the Doobie Brothers, with special guests Huey Lewis, George Thorogood, Charlie Musselwhite and Bonnie Raitt.

"He was the antithesis of East Coast cynical," said Raitt, who spent Sunday morning watching Buffalo videos on YouTube. "He was always in funny mode without being too gooey about it. He's been that guy all this time. In one guy, you got all the hope and optimism of the '70s."

Mr. Buffalo played on the Grammy-winning Doobie Brothers album "Minute by Minute," and the recent children's music CD by Kenny Loggins. With Bette Midler, he played in the band and acted in the film "The Rose." He collaborated on tours and a series of recordings for more than 20 years with blues guitarist Roy Rogers. One of their songs, "Ain't No Bread in the Breadbox," was a cornerstone in the '90s live repertoire of the Jerry Garcia Band.

"Norton Buffalo was a character and a half," Rogers said. "He had a sense of humor. He liked to have a good time, and the joy of his playing came out."

Miller said: "He was a complete original. He worked with all kinds of people. He did tons and tons of projects. Everybody who worked with him loved him, really enjoyed working with him."

Mr. Buffalo joined the Steve Miller Band in 1976 at the beginning of the "Fly Like an Eagle" tour and has remained a constant presence in Miller's music ever since. Miller invariably introduced Mr. Buffalo to concert audiences as "my partner in harmony."

"He had way more music in him than I could use," Miller said. "I just had more work for him than everybody else."

Mr. Buffalo's own recordings include his 1977 Capitol Records release, "Lovin' in the Valley of the Moon," an album that maintains a strong cult following, and a 2000 blues-based release, "King of the Highway." He recently released a joint CD with Hawaiian slack key guitarist George Kahumoku Jr. He was a virtuosic and technically accomplished chromatic harmonica player who could play anything - blues, rock, pop, country, folk, show tunes.

Born in Oakland and raised in Richmond, Mr. Buffalo was raised in a musical family. His father played harmonica, and his mother sang in '40s San Francisco nightclubs. His great-uncle, Herbert Stothart, was a Hollywood soundtrack composer who won an Academy Award for his work on "The Wizard of Oz."
"His harp could become the valley of the moon, Krakatoa, a storm out at sea, then the sweetest sound this side of heaven," said Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who played with Mr. Buffalo in a project called High Noon in the '70s and '80s.

Mr. Buffalo joined one of the final editions of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen on a 1976 European tour, before returning to the Bay Area and forming the Norton Buffalo Stampede, a band that headlined Bay Area clubs for several years. In between tours with Miller and Rogers, Mr. Buffalo had been appearing recently with the Norton Buffalo Trio with his third wife, Lisa Flores.

He is survived by his wife; children, Aisah of Lake Tahoe and Elias of Sonoma; stepchildren, Sierra Ruelas of Sonoma and Bo Winterburn of San Diego; father, Ken Jackson of Paradise; and five brothers and sisters.
Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings, Tom Rigney and Flambeau and the Carlos Reyes Band will appear Nov. 22 in a benefit and memorial at the Paradise Performing Arts Center in Paradise. Funeral and other memorial plans are pending.

E-mail Joel Selvin at datebookletters@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page C - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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