His wide range of musical styles make Norton Buffalo impossible to categorize. But even if he spreads himself across musical boundaries to include country, rock and more, the man showed a Palms audience in June that he can play a mean blues harmonica.
Recognized by the Bay Area Blues Society as 1989's best blues harmonica player, Buffalo is not your classic blues musician who can easily be put into this or that category. But his first album in nearly 20 years, set for release this fall, will be full of straight ahead blues. A friendly and very approachable man, Buffalo said between visits from friends backstage that he moved into a blues phase when he began recording a second album with Roy Rogers a few years ago that didn't come out as intended. "But as we started doing it, country blues started to fall by the side, then the album became more of the blues stuff," Buffalo said. "So I said 'why not go for it and put out a blues album?'" The fall release will also feature solo harmonica between songs, sort of a "segue of Buffalo harmonica," he said.
His Palms show included quite a bit of blues, featuring some tunes that will be on his upcoming album, such as the slow Line of Fire, and the perky Sweet Little Pumpkin. Another was the whimsical ode to a Pontiac, King of the Highway. For a time, Buffalo said that he was writing songs that he characterized as a little too blue. He went through a brutal divorce last year, and "every song I wrote was about what came out of the divorce." But now, he said, things are turning around, and not all of his new songs are as gut wrenching as when he was down.
Buffalo, who lives near Sonoma, writes some of his songs while seated at a piano but often sets up chord changes and the melody while in the car. "Then when the band gets it, it develops some more character." While recording the upcoming album, some songs were started by identifying what thread he wanted to run through them. "I went in and said 'I want a song with this kind of groove,' then cut a groove, and made a couple of changes in it. Then I listened to it over and over until I came up with the lyrics," he said. "I'll wrap a tune around a feeling or groove that I like. I've been doing it that way for years."
Buffalo, who turns 45 years old in September, said that it's important to "have songs that make people feel perky and happy." "When I'm singing and playing, it's coming from a pretty place. And when it translates to the public, that means that I've done my job." Buffalo's variety of music comes from growing up in Richmond, which was a melting pot of culture and music back in the 50s and 60s. "I heard a lot of music growing up," he said. "I would say a lot of my music blends a lot of that stuff." His strongest influence was the Richmond soul bands, he said. "Not the blues, except what I'd hear downstairs on the radio." Buffalo learned to play the harmonica from his father when he was seven, and the pair would play tunes like Suwannee River in the living room. He played a lot of rock and roll with bands in his teen years, and played trombone with his high school jazz band. But he started doing his own style early, and wouldn't even listen to other harmonica players. "If someone came up and said I sounded like someone else, I'd get real defensive," Buffalo said. "So I stopped looking around at other guys, and just tried to sound like me." Rather than picking up licks from other harmonica players, which is conventional, Buffalo often gets ideas from other instruments, like a guitar or piano. "If I had to say that I have a best instrument, I'd say it's my ear."
Buffalo has recorded with dozens of artists over the years, from Bette Midler to The Doobie Brothers to Elvin Bishop. He has backed Steve Miller during summer tours for several years, and while it pays the bills, there are some drawbacks. "It takes up my whole summer, and there's a whole lot of blues festivals and gigs that I could be doing, but it all happens during the summer," he said. "So working with Steve has kind of put me out of that department. People don't know who the hell I am because I don't play those festivals in the summer."