Harmonica star dies soon after being diagnosed with lung cancer | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Harmonica star dies soon after being diagnosed with lung cancer

Tim Parsons
Lake Tahoe Action

Friends and musical partners of Norton Buffalo expressed shock and grief when the harmonica genius with a singular singing voice died less than two months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Buffalo, who appears on 180 albums with numerous artists, died Oct. 30 in his hometown of Paradise, Calif. He was 58.

“He was like a brother,” said Roy Rogers, who played in a duo with Buffalo since 1987. “He was in the prime of his life, really. He was 58 and still blazing wonderfully.”

Guitarist Johnny Vernazza, who played in Buffalo’s band since 1979, was slated to perform in Eureka with him on Sept. 5. He said Buffalo called to say he was too weak to make the show. The next day he was diagnosed with cancer.

“That was the first one he ever canceled,” said Vernazza, who added: “Norton never smoked in his life.”

However, he performed for years in smoke-filled venues.

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“When I started playing with Norton sometimes we were on the road two or three weeks in a row and all those places were just smoke fests,” Vernazza said. “I quit smoking at that time and I would wake up in the morning coughing. You had to wrap your clothes up in plastic before you put them in your bag.”

While Buffalo had his own band, the Knockouts, he also played in the Steve Miller Band.

“There are some people who pass through this world who are so unique and special they defy description, and Norton Buffalo was one of those people,” Miller wrote on his Web site, http://www.stevemillerband.com

Starting in 1991 with “R&B,” Rogers and Buffalo recorded three albums together, and Buffalo appeared on several more of Rogers’ solo albums. Between their other projects, Buffalo and Rogers never stopped playing duet concerts.

“It was like hand in glove,” Rogers said. “Norton and I realized early on, it just fit so well. We could each be busy in doing other things and get back to it after not played together for months and we never lost a beat. Never had to rehearse. It was always there for us, and we both appreciated how special that is.”

Rogers and several other artists will perform a Nov. 22 benefit for Buffalo’s family, wife Lisa Flores-Buffalo and children Aisah of Lake Tahoe and Elias, 24, of Sonoma, and stepson Bo Winterburn.

Buffalo’s life will be celebrated Jan. 23 at the Fox Theater in Oakland in a benefit which includes performances by Vernazza, Miller, the Doobie Brothers, Huey Lewis, George Thorogood, Charlie Musselwhite and Bonnie Raitt.

Buffalo’s harmonica is featured on Raitt’s biggest hit, “Runaway.”

“There’s a lot of chord changes in that song, and to play a solo over it isn’t easy, and Norton just nailed it,” Vernazza said. “I think he had to use five harps.”

Rogers said he visited Buffalo a week after he was diagnosed with cancer.

“He was in some pain, but he was in good spirits,” Rogers said. “Buffalo always was a positive guy in spite of anything that was happening, and that was just infectious. He was always upbeat, as he was through this. He knew it was a serious diagnosis.”

Vernazza last saw Buffalo on Oct. 4.

“It’s still a shock, but I knew there wasn’t going to be a whole lot of time,” said Vernazza.

Buffalo’s final Tahoe performance was March 2009 at the Blues Summit at the Crystal Bay Casino. He opened the show, then sat in with headliner Marcia Ball.

“Norton was a true gentleman,” said Bill Wood, the casino manager. “He always had a smile on his face, was positive and the consummate professional. When Marcia invited him onstage to play a few tunes she introduced Norton as ‘the great Norton Buffalo and I don’t throw the word great around lightly.’ “

Buffalo appeared in fine health that evening, performing on both ends of the bill.

“That was another blessing in Norton’s life,” Vernazza said. “He not only had the talent but he also had the business mind and the pure energy that no one else in the world had. That’s why no one noticed he was getting sick, I think.”

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