Jimmy Buffet, that Son of a Son of a Sailor, passed away on September 1. The official release from his estate indicated “Jimmy passed away peacefully on the night of September 1st surrounded by his family, friends, music and dogs. He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many”.
A succinct, yet truly fitting, way to summarize the life and career of an entertainer who impacted the lives of millions, both humans and animals, throughout his 50-plus year career. From the song The Wino and I Know, “Livin' my life like a song,” is the way that Jimmy embraced life. This singer, songwriter, guitarist, author, pilot, sailor, philanthropist and entrepreneur lived a storybook life from near-fatal land, air and sea accidents, to forming charitable causes, to achieving billionaire success.
He was born on Christmas day in 1946 in Pascagoula, Mississippi and grew up in Alabama. A literal son of a son of a sailor, he graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1969 and was soon hired as a Billboard correspondent in Nashville. He left the position shortly afterwards to embark on his legendary music career: recording his first album Down to Earth, playing gigs where he could get them, and busking in New Orleans. It was a busking trip to Key West with Mr. Bojangles himself, Jerry Jeff Walker, that introduced Jimmy to the island that would become ground zero for his future flip-flop empire.
He was not an overnight sensation by any means; he built his cult following, known as Parrotheads, over years of releasing albums and constant touring. His big breakthrough came in 1977, with the release of the platinum album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. His best-selling studio album encompassed the gulf coast sound that he had been perfecting in his previous albums, evolving from a folksy, country style to a very laid-back and tropical feel, evoking sandy beaches, wacky characters, and exotic foreign locales. The song “Margaritaville” was the rocket that shot him to the stratosphere, reaching #8 on the Billboard top 40 and taking him from opening for acts like The Eagles, to headlining amphitheaters across the country. This record was filled with rollicking adventure songs like “Tampico Trauma”, as well as travel songs like the Steve Goodman-penned “Banana Republics”, both harboring tales of expatriate dreams and delusions. Yet Buffett could also tap into heartfelt ballads about life as in the young woman’s struggles in “In the Shelter” and the power and mystique that New Orleans casts over its gulf coastal neighbors in the ethereal “Biloxi”.
Margaritaville proved to be the catalyst that launched the Buffett brand. Along with a small shop in Key West called Margaritaville, he developed a mail order business for his merchandise and titled his quarterly flyers “The Coconut Telegraph”, from an album and song of the same name. He soon engaged in much larger ventures, investing in two different chains of restaurants, Margaritaville Cafes and Cheeseburger in Paradise Restaurants. The former is still a staple on Chicago’s Navy Pier and the latter a former tenant of the local Algonquin Commons. He also formed two record companies, Margaritaville Records and Mailboat Records. His list of properties now includes casinos, retirement community developments, resorts and even a cruise line partnership. His other ventures include marketing food products, tequila and beer. He once mentioned that he had to take control early of managing his career and that led him to making sound financial decisions over his lifetime.
Branching out from music, he used his storytelling skills to pen a number of books, including Tales from Margaritaville, Where Is Joe Merchant, and A Pirate Looks at Fifty. He is one of a select few authors to have reached #1 on the New York Times fiction and non-fiction best seller lists. The main character from Where is Joe Merchant, Frank Bama, has appeared in several episodes of Hawaii Five-0. He also co-produced the film adaptation of Hoot, a children’s novel written by his close friend, former Miami Herald columnist and author Carl Hiaasen. Adding to his resume are acting credits in Hoot and in 2015’s Jurassic World, where he landed my dream role: Running Park Visitor with Margarita Drinks!
He also developed two musicals. The first, Don't Stop the Carnival, based on the 1965 novel by Herman Wouk did not achieve the success that Buffett had intended, but it did spawn a CD of the same name with great songs like “Calaloo” and “Champagne Si, Agua No”. His second attempt, Escape to Margaritaville, met with mixed reviews and ran for 124 regular performances on Broadway.
In line with his success, Buffett never lost that ability to relate to his fan base. He launched his online streaming site “RadioMargaritaville” as a vehicle to emulate the early days of offshore pirate radio and make his songs and brand accessible to anyone wishing to stream his music. He used that platform to promote up and coming musical talents like Caroline Jones and also to promote various artists that support Playing for Change, a non-profit organization supporting construction of music and art schools throughout the world. He used his celebrity status in 1981 to bring awareness to the endangered manatees of his adopted home of Florida and co-founded the “Save the Manatee Club”, a foundation set up to bring awareness to and protect the endangered species. The club currently has approximately 40,000 active members.
He also supported many charities that would seek his assistance, most recently, the Warrior Surf Foundation. In the past, he has played relief concerts for victims of hurricanes and oil spills. He rarely disappointed in helping out where his celebrity could be beneficial.
And, yes, the music kept coming. At the time of his death, he amassed 29 studio albums as well as many live albums. He had finished recording songs for his new album and was set to release it sometime this year. The reported title of the new album is Equal Strain on All Parts. There were also the duets with other artists: “Mack the Knife” with Frank Sinatra, “It’s Five O'clock Somewhere” with Alan Jackson, “Knee Deep” with the Zac Brown Band. Not to mention the songs that he performed in concert that now indelibly seem to be Buffett originals, like “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Southern Cross” to name a few.
Jimmy also has the distinction of being the first artist to perform a large-scale concert at Wrigley Field, in 2005. I had the pleasure of seeing Jimmy twice in my life, both times at Wrigley Field. The first, in 2017 with supporting act Huey Lewis and again in 2018 with Boz Scaggs and Caroline Jones as the openers. He and his band, The Coral Reefer Band, brought an energy to the stage that belied his advancing age. He remained a true professional and showman to the end.
He is survived by his wife Jane, his two daughters Savannah and Sarah, and his son Cameron. And of course, all of us Parrotheads who sold out to his Margaritaville state of mind along the way. Sail on, Sailor.