A Conversation with Norton Buffalo of the Steve Miller Band
HULICK: When did you join the band, Norton?
BUFFALO: Well I started recording and hanging out with Steve in the fall of 1975. Steve had taken a couple of years off after “The Joker,” which was a big hit, and he was in the studio recording “Fly Like An Eagle.” We met at a club; Steve knew some of the guys that ran it. There was a jam session and I went there with Bill Kirsch and the guitar player from Commander Cody…Boz Scaggs was there, Tommy Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, Les Dudak, Doug Clifford from Creedence Clearwater Revival was playing…
HULICK: Wow! Quite a group.
BUFFALO: Yeah… quite an eclectic collection of musicians. We had a great time jamming and about a week later Steve and I ended up at this same party at a math teacher’s house who had an annual shebang. We ended up playing together at that party for about five hours, just having a ball. And the groundwork was set. Then Steve asked me to join his band for his “Fly Like An Eagle” tour in 1976. So I’ve been on stage with him since then. We have a new member in the band, Sonny Charles, who joined us just last year. That has kind of given us a little new energy. He sings lead on a few songs, and that’s a big change for the group. It’s been a lot of fun. In the middle of the show we’ve been doing some blues and Sonny gets to sing. He’s just a great vocalist and a wonderful presence on the stage.
HULICK: Sonny, of course, is the founding member of the group The Checkmates, and when I read about him playing the Las Vegas strip for 45 years it blew my mind. And now to be able to start a second career with you guys must be very thrilling for him.
BUFFALO: Yeah and I’ll tell you, he’s got some stories! (Laughs) When we’re riding on the bus together… Sonny’s got some tales. His stories are unique. We’re having a ball and I’ll tell you Steve is still singing as beautiful as ever.
HULICK: You have a tremendous career of your own playing harmonica.
BUFFALO: Yeah, but when I’m with Steve, I’m certainly playing a lot of harmonica, but it’s really about the singing. He likes to call me his “partner in harmony.” I just love singing with him and we’ve sung those songs…I can’t even start to think how many times we’ve sung those songs (laughs).
HULICK: (Laughs) I can’t even imagine.
BUFFALO: (Laughs) Trying to come up with that number…that’s not even going to happen.
HULICK: You guys have a new album you’re putting the finishing touches on. Is it pretty much complete?
BUFFALO: It’s getting pretty close to complete. I think the schedule, at this point, they’re talking about it being released next spring.
HULICK: Steve is quoted as saying that this album is “the frat album of all time.” Would you agree with that?
BUFFALO: Well, it’s a fun record. It’s one of those that makes you want to just get up. Andy Johns, the guy who engineered and helped produce the record, is a phenomenal record engineer who’s recorded the Rolling Stones and a long list of people. The sounds on this record are just fabulous. From the drum sounds, rhythm section, Steve’s guitar, the vocals...it’s one of the best sounding records Steve’s ever done.
HULICK: Are we going to get to hear a couple of the songs in August at the fair?
BUFFALO: Yeah, of course!
HULICK: Great! Let’s talk a little bit about your amazing career. You’ve been called “one of the best harmonica players in the business,” as well as the “finest multi-genre harmonica players of our time.” Did you know this is what you wanted to do?
BUFFALO: Well my dad played harmonica, and when I first picked up the harmonica I was only seven. So I’ve been playing for 50 years. I knew I wanted to do it…I remember when I was in fifth grade I was in a talent contest and I lost, and I was kind of broken-hearted. But I went back in the sixth grade and won the contest. So I always knew I wanted to play the harmonica…but never thought of it…well I was in my third year of college majoring in psychology and I really thought that this is what I had to do…grow up and get a real job, and music was something you did for fun. That year I sat down and had one of those moments of epiphany, because I was working full time on a graveyard shift that was helping me pay for college and nothing was working very well. I was having a hard time at school, having a hard time staying awake (laughs), and so I thought to myself, ‘Everybody always said I was the best on the harmonica, so why don’t I give it a go?’ That was 1972, and by 1975 I met Steve, and in the fall of 1976 I had a record deal.
HULICK: The music industry these days seems to be so “in the moment” as far as talent is concerned. Kind of like have your big hit then retire to the background. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to go for a career in music but wants to have lasting success as you have had?
BUFFALO: I think a lot of it is a craft, not just a business. It’s about being good at your instrument. And it’s also about, especially if you’re a songwriter, developing and working on your talent. It’s not like, “OK, I got all the talent I need right now, I’m just going out and play for the rest of my life.” It’s a process. I think I’m still growing as a harmonica player. I’ve been playing for 50 years and I still feel I have a lot of room to grow and get better. It’s also about learning how to choose the higher path when you have choices to make. Whether it is how you live your personal life or habits and all those kind of things. Choose to pick the higher road, and consider that this is an amazing and wonderful business and we in the music business are giving a gift.
HULICK: What would you say has been the best era for the Steve Miller Band personally and professionally?
BUFFALO: I think that maybe we’re in it. The 1990s were huge…we were playing every summer, and sometimes spring, summer and fall, to huge crowds. We’re still playing to huge crowds and the band just gets better and better. I still like to hark back to the younger, more innocent days before the hits were as big of hits… there was a lot of fun going on back then. But I think there’s something to be said about the fact that the band has matured and this band that’s together now, besides Sonny who just joined, has been together since 1993. It’s like we are a well-oiled machine. It’s like a new BMW… (laughs) well OK, let’s use an American car (laughs). We’ll pick Chevy.
HULICK: (Laughs) Yes, let’s use Chevy to help bail them out, OK?
BUFFALO: (Laughs) So, that’s the neat thing about now…Steve can get on stage and just do his thing because the band is so rock solid behind him. Right now is one of the best times for the Steve Miller Band.