Jimmy Buffett was born on December 25, 1946, in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and spent part of his childhood in Mobile and Fairhope, Alabama. He was the son of Mary Lorraine (née Peets) and James Delaney Buffett Jr, who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. During his grade school years, he attended St. Ignatius School, where he played the trombone in the school band. As a child, he was exposed to sailing through his grandfather who was a steamship captain and these experiences influenced his later music. He graduated from McGill Institute for Boys, a Catholic high school in Mobile, in 1964. He began playing the guitar during his first year at Auburn University after seeing a fraternity brother playing while surrounded by a group of girls. Buffett left Auburn after a year due to his grades and continued his college years at Pearl River Community College and the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, where he received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1969. From 1969 to 1970, Buffett worked for Billboard as a Nashville correspondent, and in 1969, he was the first writer to report that the bluegrass duo Flatt and Scruggs had disbanded.
Buffett began his musical career in Nashville, Tennessee, where during the late 1960s he was recognized as a country artist and recorded his first album, the country-tinged folk rock record Down to Earth, in 1970. During this time, Buffett could be frequently found busking for tourists in New Orleans. In the fall of 1971 after an impromptu audition, Buffett was hired by a Nashville club called the Exit/In to open for recording artist Dianne Davidson. Fellow country singer Jerry Jeff Walker took him to Key West on a busking expedition in November 1971. Key West in the 1970s was not the tourist-friendly town it is today – it was the last outpost of smugglers, con-men, artists and free-spirits who simply couldn’t run any further south in the mainland United States. It was there that the 25 year old musician thrown into the midst of this eclectic mix found his true voice as a songwriter – telling the stories of the wanderers, the adventurers and the forlorn.
As a result of this experience Buffett then moved to Key West and began establishing the easy-going beach-bum persona he became known for. He started out playing for drinks at the Chart Room Bar in the Pier House Motel. Following this move, Buffett combined country, rock, folk, calypso and pop music with coastal as well as tropical lyrical themes for a sound sometimes called “gulf and western” (or tropical rock). He was a regular visitor to the Caribbean island of Saint Barts and neighboring St.Martin where he got the inspiration for many of his songs and later some of the characters in his books.
With the untimely death of friend and mentor Jim Croce in September 1973, ABC/Dunhill Records tapped Buffett to fill his space. Earlier, Buffett had visited Croce’s farm in Pennsylvania and met with Croce in Florida.
Buffett’s second release was 1973’s A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean. Albums Living & Dying in 3/4 Time and A1A both followed in 1974, Havana Daydreamin’ appeared in 1976, and Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes followed in 1977, which featured the breakthrough hit song “Margaritaville”. That year he also married to Jane Volslag, who became his wife for the rest of his life.
Later he offered the story of how he came to write his biggest hit: “I started writing it on a napkin in a Mexican restaurant in Austin, Texas, with a friend who was driving me to the airport, to fly home to Key West. On the drive down the Keys, there was a fender bender on the Seven Mile Bridge, west of Marathon, and I was stuck, overlooking Pigeon Key. I sat on the bridge for about an hour and finished the song there. That night, I played it for the first time at my job at Crazy Ophelia’s on Duval Street. The small crowd in the bar asked me to play it again. And I did. So, I guess it is a pretty good three-minute song that has stood the test of time.”
During the 1980s, Buffett made far more money from his tours than his albums and became known as a popular concert draw. He released a series of albums during the following 20 years, primarily to his devoted audience, and also branched into writing and merchandising. In 1985, Buffett opened a “Margaritaville” retail store in Key West, and in 1987, he opened the Margaritaville Cafe.
In 1994, Buffett dueted with Frank Sinatra on a cover of “Mack the Knife” on Sinatra’s final studio album, “Duets II”. In 1997, Buffett collaborated with novelist Herman Wouk to create a musical based on Wouk’s novel, Don’t Stop the Carnival, a MUST READ for everyone ever planning to move to a Caribbean Island. Broadway showed little interest in the play (following the failure of Paul Simon’s The Capeman), and it ran only for six weeks in Miami. He released an album of songs from the musical in 1998.
In January 1996, Buffett’s Grumman HU-16 airplane named Hemisphere Dancer was shot at by Jamaican police, who believed the craft to be smuggling marijuana. The aircraft sustained minimal damage. The plane was carrying Buffett, as well as U2’s Bono, his wife and two children, and Island Records producer Chris Blackwell, and co-pilot Bill Dindy. The Jamaican government acknowledged the mistake and apologized to Buffett, who penned the song “Jamaica Mistaica” for his Banana Wind album based on the experience.
Buffett’s 1999 song “Math Suks” caused a brief media frenzy in our exceedingly intolerant society. The song was in fact promptly condemned by the US National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Education Association for its alleged negative effect on children’s education. Comedian Jon Stewart also ‘criticized’ the song on The Daily Show during a segment called “Math Is Quite Pleasant”.
On February 4, 2001, he was ejected from the American Airlines Arena in Miami during a basketball game between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks for cursing. After the game, referee Joe Forte said that he ordered him moved during the fourth quarter because “there was a little boy sitting next to him and a lady sitting by him. He used some words he knows he shouldn’t have used.” Forte apparently did not know who Buffett was, and censured Heat coach Pat Riley because he thought Riley—who was trying to explain to him who Buffett was—was insulting him by asking if he had ever been a “Parrothead”, the nickname for Buffett fans. Buffett did not comment immediately after the incident, but discussed it on The Today Show three days later.
In 2003, going back to his country roots, he partnered in a partial duet with Alan Jackson for the song “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”, which spent a then record eight weeks atop the country charts. This song won the 2003 Country Music Association Award for Vocal Event of the Year. This was Buffett’s first award in his 30-year recording career.
Buffett’s album License to Chill, released on July 13, 2004, sold 238,600 copies in its first week of release according to Nielsen Soundscan. With this, Buffett topped the U.S. pop albums chart for the first time in his career.
Buffett continued to tour regularly until shortly before his death, although later in his career, he shifted to a more relaxed schedule of around 20–30 dates, with infrequent back-to-back nights, preferring to play only on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. This schedule provided the title of his 1999 live album.
In the summer of 2005, Buffett teamed up with Sirius Satellite Radio and introduced Radio Margaritaville. Until this point, Radio Margaritaville was solely an online channel. Radio Margaritaville has remained on the service through Sirius’ merger with XM Radio and currently appears as XM 24. The channel broadcasts from the Margaritaville Resort Orlando in Kissimmee, Florida.
In August 2006, he released the album Take the Weather with You. The song “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On” on this album is in honor of the survivors of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Buffett’s rendition of “Silver Wings” on the same album was made as a tribute to Merle Haggard. On August 30, 2007, he received his star on the Mohegan Sun Walk of Fame.
On October 6, 2006, it was reported that Buffett had been detained by French customs officials in Saint Tropez for allegedly carrying over 100 pills of ecstasy. Buffett’s luggage was searched after his Dassault Falcon 900 private jet landed at Toulon-Hyères International Airport. He paid a fine of $300 and was released. A spokesperson for Buffett stated the pills in question were prescription drugs, but declined to name the drug or the health problem for which he was being treated. Buffett released a statement that the “ecstasy” was in fact a B-vitamin supplement known as Foltx.
On April 20, 2010, a double CD of performances recorded during the 2008 and 2009 tours called Encores was released exclusively at Walmart, Walmart.com, and Margaritaville.com.
Buffett partnered in a duet with the Zac Brown Band on the song “Knee Deep”; released on Brown’s 2010 album You Get What You Give, it became a hit country and pop single in 2011. Also in 2011, Buffett voiced Huckleberry Finn on Mark Twain: Words & Music, which was released on Mailboat Records. The project is a benefit for the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum and includes Clint Eastwood as Mark Twain, Garrison Keillor as the narrator, and songs by Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, and others.
Of the over 30 albums Jimmy Buffett released, eight became Gold albums and nine are Platinum or Multiplatinum. In 2007, Buffett was nominated for the CMA Event of the Year Award for his song “Hey Good Lookin'” which featured Alan Jackson and George Strait.
In 2020, Buffett released Songs You Don’t Know by Heart, a fan-curated collection of his lesser-known songs rerecorded on his collection of notable guitars.
During a performance in Nashville, Tennessee on April 11, 2023, Buffett said he had recorded an album entitled Equal Strain on All Parts. Buffett got the idea for the album title from his grandfather’s description of a nap. The album has yet to be released.
Buffett performed his final full concert at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego on May 6, 2023. He made two further concert appearances, as an unannounced guest at concerts by Coral Reefer Band members, in Amagansett, New York on June 11 and Portsmouth, Rhode Island on July 2.
Giving in to the societal need of pigeon-holing genres, Buffett began calling his music “drunken Caribbean rock ‘n’ roll” as he said on his 1978 live album You Had To Be There. Earlier, Buffett himself and others had used the term “gulf and western” to describe his musical style and that of other similar-sounding performers. The name derives from elements in Buffett’s early music including musical influence from country, along with lyrical themes from the Gulf Coast. A music critic described Buffett’s music as a combination of “tropical languor with country funkiness into what some [have] called the Key West sound, or Gulf-and-western.” The term is a play on the form of “Country & Western” and the name of the former conglomerate and Paramount Pictures parent Gulf+Western. In 2020, The Associated Press described Buffett’s sound as a “special Gulf Coast blend of country, pop, folk and rock, topped by Buffett’s swaying voice. Few can mix steelpans, trombones and pedal steel guitar so effortlessly.” The DC Metro Theatre Arts magazine, in a review for Buffett’s musical Escape to Margaritaville, described Buffett’s music as “blend[ing] Caribbean, country, rock, folk, and pop music into a good-natured concoction variously classified as “trop rock” or “gulf and western”.
Other performers identified as gulf and western are often deliberately derivative of Buffett’s musical style and some are tribute bands, or in the case of Greg “Fingers” Taylor, a former member of Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. They can be heard on Buffett’s online Radio Margaritaville and on the compilation album series Thongs in the Key of Life. Gulf and western performers include Norman “the Caribbean Cowboy” Lee, Jim Bowley, Kenny Chesney and Jim Morris.
Jimmy’s Rise to Superstardom
Through his ‘80s tenure at MCA, Buffett’s albums languished in the middle reaches of the U.S. pop charts, but he remained a top concert attraction. During that decade he began his deep move into personal branding and ancillary marketing, establishing the first Margaritaville retail store in Key West in 1987 and the first Margaritaville Café in 1987.
His fortunes rose in the ‘90s with the founding of his Margaritaville imprint, distributed successively by MCA and Island Records; four of his five studio albums during that decade – “Fruitcakes,” “Barometer Soup,” “Banana Wind” and “Beach House on the Moon” – reached the pop top 10 and went either gold or platinum. A pair of ‘90s concert shots, “Feeding Frenzy” (1990) and “Buffett Live: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays” (1999) were certified gold; the latter album was the first release on a new personal imprint, Mailboat Records.
After the turn of the millennium, marking his first appearances at the apex of the American pop charts, Buffett belatedly launched a pair of studio albums, “License to Chill” (2004) and “Take the Weather With You” (2006) to No. 1 on the pop album charts.
His biggest latter-day singles were collaborations that found success on the country singles charts. A duet with Alan Jackson, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” was No. 1 nationally in 2003, garnering a CMA Award as vocal event of the year. A 2004 version of Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’,” cut with Jackson, Clint Black, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, George Strait, rose to No. 8. In 2011, he reached No. 1 again alongside the Zac Brown Band on “Knee Deep.”
Buffett’s highly palatable variety of party-hearty music translated into a host of products, making him one of the most successful and wealthiest performers in the world. In 2016, his personal worth was estimated at $500 million.
Writing about “Margaritaville” on the 40th anniversary of the song’s release in 2017, Forbes stated that it “morphed into a global lifestyle brand that currently has more than $4.8 billion in the development pipeline and sees $1.5 billion in annual system-wide sales. This year, Margaritaville Holdings announced a partnership with Minto Communities to develop Latitude Margaritaville, new active adult communities for those ‘55 and better,’ including the $1 billion Daytona Beach, Florida location and a second in Hilton Head, South Carolina.”
The business magazine noted that the performer’s licensed brands included apparel and footwear, retail stores, restaurants, resort destinations, gaming rooms, restaurants and even a Margaritaville-branded line of beer, LandShark Lager, which was projected to shift an estimated 3.6 million cases during its first year of availability.
Buffett also found success as a writer: His novels “Tales from Margaritaville” and “Where is Joe Merchant?” and memoir “A Pirate Looks at Fifty” all reached No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. He was also active in film and TV work, writing soundtracks and appearing as a cameo player, most recently in Harmony Korine’s 2019 comedy “The Beach Bum.”
His lone shot at musical theater, an adaptation of Herman Wouk’s “Don’t Stop the Carnival” written with the novelist, was an out-of-town flop in 1997.
An unflagging stage performer, Buffett toured annually with his Coral Reefer Band and remained a top concert draw late in his career – in 2018, he appeared co-billed on a national tour with the Eagles. Endlessly reprised in concert, his songs like “A Pirate Looks at Forty” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise” were perennial sing-along favorites for a legion of parrotheads garbed in Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops.
Analyzing the enduring appeal of Buffett’s music, Christopher Ashley, director of the 2017 jukebox musical “Escape to Margaritaville,” said, “There is a celebratory bacchanalian quality but also a real strain of sadness in those songs. I think his songs have a real philosophical commitment to finding joy now, being as now is the only moment… Don’t postpone joy. Embrace it. Grab it. I think that’s profound and a great message to send in a world as joy-challenged as this one.”
Next to his pals Elton John and Paul McCartney, Jimmy Buffett amassed more that a $1 billion in his lifetime. Elton John and Paul McCartney are among the many stars who paid tribute to Jimmy Buffett after the American singer’s death on Friday, September 1, 2023.
Buffett passed away aged 76, at his home in Sag Harbor, New York due to complications from merkel-cell carcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer. Buffett left behind his second wife Jane, their two daughters, Sarah and Savannah, and son Cameron.
Elton John remembered Buffett as: “Jimmy Buffett was a unique and treasured entertainer. His fans adored him and he never let them down. This is the saddest of news. A lovely man gone way too soon. Condolences to (his wife) Jane and the family from (my husband) David (Furnish) and me.”
McCartney meanwhile, reminisced about going on holiday with the late rocker, who restringed his guitar so the former Beatle could play it left-handed, before gifting him a specially made instrument.
“It seems that so many wonderful people are leaving this world, and now Jimmy Buffett is one of them,” the British star wrote before describing Buffett’s act of kindness. “I’ve known Jimmy for some time and found him to be one of the kindest and most generous people.” He added: “He had a most amazing lust for life and a beautiful sense of humour. When we swapped tales about the past his were so exotic and lush and involved sailing trips and surfing and so many exciting stories that it was hard for me to keep up with him. Right up to the last minute his eyes still twinkled with a humour that said, ‘I love this world and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it’. So many of us will miss Jimmy and his tremendous personality. His love for us all, and for mankind as a whole.”
The Beach Boys star Brian Wilson also paid tribute to his fellow musician, as did U.S. President Joe Biden.
In a statement, America’s leader said, “A poet of paradise, Jimmy Buffett was an American music icon who inspired generations to step back and find the joy in life and in one another,” before praising his “witty, wistful songs”. US president Joe Biden honored the singer as “an American music icon” and “a poet of paradise”, while expressing his and First Lady Jill Biden’s condolences to Mr Buffett’s family. “His witty, wistful songs celebrate a uniquely American cast of characters and seaside folkways, weaving together an unforgettable musical mix of country, folk, rock, pop, and calypso into something uniquely his own,” the White House statement read.
“We had the honor to meet and get to know Jimmy over the years, and he was in life as he was performing on stage – full of goodwill and joy, using his gift to bring people together.
“Jimmy reminded us how much the simple things in life matter – the people we love, the places we’re from, the hopes we have on the horizon.
“Jill and I send our love to his wife of 46 years, Jane; to their children, Savannah, Sarah, and Cameron; to their grandchildren; and to the millions of fans who will continue to love him even as his ship now sails for new shores.”
Jimmy, contrary to so many of his contemporaries liked reporters because he started as a journalist, writing for Billboard magazine. He thought of himself as a writer — not only of songs but also of best-selling books; he was one of just a few to scale both the fiction and nonfiction lists at The Times. It was more than that, though. He was blessed with an irresistible Southern, devil-may-care charm. Usually, joie de vivre is a sign you’re not paying attention. But with Jimmy, it was ensorcelling. He sang for wounded Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. He was able to transport them to a beach with no cares. During the Covid years, he did “cabin fever Zooms” with health care workers from across the country who were Parrotheads.
He loved pirates, mermaids, jukeboxes and the glamorous era of Pan Am flight attendants. In one sense, he was a model for how to live: Build your life around what you love.
In the end, having packed a thousand lifetimes into one, he was a model for how to die.
“Well, I have learned one thing from my latest in a series of the ever-appearing speed bumps of life — 75 is NOT the new 50,” he emailed me. “Thinking younger doesn’t quite do it. You still have to do the hard work of, as the Toby Keith song says, ‘Don’t let the old man in.’ And that is my job now, the way I see it.” Sadly he made it only until September 1, when he handed the towel in. He was one of a kind.
The titles of new songs he was working on that were so Jimmy: “Conch Fritters and Red Wine,” “Fish Porn” and “My Gummy Just Kicked In,” which featured a turn by his Hamptons pal Paul McCartney.
Jimmy urged all of us to keep after the bad guys. “Keep trolling out there; as a longtime fisherman, I can say with some authority, you never know what is going to wind up on the end of your rod. Fins up and see you soon.”