Over the course of a four-decade career, singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett established a vast business empire built entirely around the popularity of a single song. For those who doubted such a feat, the tune in question was his 1976 song "Margaritaville," a breezy, instantly likable song about the joys, and secret heartache, of a carefree existence in a tropical paradise that captured the imagination of millions of listeners. By 1998, the song was played over four million times on radio and television since its debut, which roughly translated into 200,000 hours of continuous play. Buffett shrewdly parlayed the song's landslide popularity into a yearly concert tour that attracted millions of dedicated fans, or "Parrotheads," who enthusiastically purchased anything associated with Buffett - from best-selling novels and beer, to meals at his Margaritaville Cafes or a vacation at the Margaritaville resort on the Turks and Calicos islands in the Caribbean. Throughout his transformation from artist to brand, Buffett continued to deliver his effortlessly party-inducing music in concert and on record, which spread the gospel of good times to generations of fans.
James William Buffett was born Dec. 25, 1946 in Pascagoula, MS, the son of James Delaney Buffett, Jr., a flight mechanic who moved his son and wife Mary to Mobile to work for the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company. His parents envisioned a life in either the clergy or the Navy for their son, and sent him to parochial schools like St. Ignatius, where he was both an altar boy and trombone player in the school band. After graduating from the college prep McGill Institute for Boys in 1964, Buffett entered Auburn University the following year, where he learned guitar as a pledge with the Sigma Pi fraternity. Music and its ability to introduce Buffett to coeds soon took precedence over his studies, and he failed out of Auburn in 1966. To avoid the draft for the war in Vietnam, Buffett quickly enrolled at Pearl River Junior College in Poplarville, MS. He paid for his tuition by working as a busker on weekends in New Orleans, and later, as a member of a band called the Upstairs Alliance, which played regular dates along the Gulf Coast.
Buffett partook wholeheartedly in New Orleans' counterculture scene in the late 1960s, but managed to keep up his grades, which allowed him to transfer to the University of Southern Mississippi and complete a degree in history in 1969. Upon graduating, he once again attempted to fend off the draft by applying for the Navy's Officer Candidate School, but to his surprise, was discharged when a peptic ulcer was discovered during his physical. He was now able to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter in earnest, and recorded songs at a studio in Mobile owned by songwriter Milton Brown, who also helped him land a job as a writer at the Nashville offices of Billboard magazine. His status as a 9-to-5 office worker ended shortly after signing with Barnaby Records, which released his debut album, Down to Earth (1970). It sold less than 400 copies, and the label added insult to injury by misplacing the master tape for his sophomore LP, High Cumberland Jubilee, until 1998. Depressed by his seemingly stalled-out career, Buffett divorced his first wife, Margie Washichek, and followed country singer Jerry Jeff Walker to Florida, where they worked as buskers. Buffett later found work in Key West on a fishing boat and wrote songs based on the laid-back lifestyle of the beach bums and barflies he observed in coastal towns.
Buffett's songs, which combined folk and soft-rock with elements of country and tropical music in a style dubbed "gulf and western," attracted the attention of the ABC-Dunhill label, which released his official second album, A White Sports Coat and a Pink Crustacean, in 1973. The album featured two minor numbers, a tribute to homemade alcohol called "Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit," which broke the Top 40 on the U.S. Easy Listening Charts, and the off-color "Why Don't We Get Drunk." The record stalled just south of the Billboard 200, but its follow-up, Living & Dying in ¾ Time (1974) generated his first Top 40 single, the wistful "Come Monday." Subsequent singles from the record failed to generate similar attention, largely due to the fact that Buffett's music often resisted categorization. "Pencil Thin Mustache" was a tribute to Jazz Era crooners and culture, while "A Pirate Looks at Forty," from his 1975 LP A1A was a mournful country song about a hellraiser past his prime. Buffett would release another album, Havana Daydreamin' to little acclaim while paying the dues as a live act with his touring group, the Coral Reefer Band. During this period, Buffett also made his screen debut as himself in Thomas McGuane's offbeat "Rancho Deluxe" (1975), and would continue to dabble in acting over the next few decades.
In 1976, he penned "Margaritaville," a gentle pop song that ruminated on a season spent in a semi-perpetual alcoholic haze to ward off the pain of a failed romance. Buffett intended for Elvis Presley to record the song, but after the rock legend's untimely death the following year, it became the first single from his sixth album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (1977). The song's rueful, self-deprecating lyrics and gentle musical evocation of a balmy tropical day won over audiences, who sent the song to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and No. 13 on the Country Songs chart. Subsequent singles like the title track from Changes in Latitudes and "Cheeseburger in Paradise" from Son of a Son of a Sailor (1978) minted Buffett as a fun-loving, free-wheeling member of the soft-rock community alongside Jackson Browne, the Steve Miller Band, the Eagles, and Seals and Croft. Browne and Miller, in fact, took Buffett with them on tour throughout 1978, where his playful live show ingratiated him to audiences on both coasts.
The 1980s saw Buffett's stock as a recording artist decline after 1981's Coconut Telegraph, his last Top 40 album for nearly a decade. None of his songs from the period made a dent on the singles chart either, but he remained a popular and lucrative attraction on the summer tour circuit. Loyal fans, dubbed "Parrotheads" by Buffett, flocked to his stadium dates in Hawaiian shirts and varying states of inebriation to dance to his biggest hits from the 1970s. Seeing that his fan base would purchase anything associated with his name, Buffett shrewdly dove into merchandising. He launched a Margaritaville retail store specializing in island wear in 1985, which was soon followed by a restaurant, the Margaritaville Café, which would eventually expand into a franchise. Both proved lucrative enough for him to invest in a minor league baseball team, the Miami Miracles, which later became a championship-winning major league club, the Florida Marlins. In 1989, he penned his first book, a collection of short stories titled Tales from Margaritaville which reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list. His fiction output soon diversified into a pair of top-selling children's books co-written with his then-adolescent daughter, Savannah Jane, and a mystery novel, Where Is Joe Merchant? (1992), which repeated the success of his short story collection.
In 1990, Buffett broke his lengthy streak of low-selling records with a live LP, Feeding Frenzy, which cracked the Top 100. It was soon followed by a 1992 box set, Boats, Beaches, Bars and Ballads, which became one of the top-selling music retrospectives ever. The ceaseless expansion and promotion clearly paid off with his 1990 album Fruitcakes, which was his first release to break the Top 20 since 1979, as well as the debut album for his own label, Margaritaville Records. Buffett would continue on this hot streak throughout the 1990s, with four albums in the Top 20. Despite his relentless touring schedule and side projects, he also found time to make his dramatic acting debut as a pirate in Steven Spielberg's fantasy "Hook" (1991), and later played a heckler beaten by Tommy Lee Jones' Ty Cobb in Ron Shelton's biopic "Cobb" (1994) and a doomed charter pilot in "Congo" (1995). In 1997, he collaborated with Herman Wouk on a musical based on the author's 1965 comic novel Don't Stop the Carnival, but the failure of Paul Simon's The Capeman torpedoed any chances of another pop singer-penned stage production making its way to Broadway. The following year, he released his autobiography, A Pirate Looks at Fifty, which shot to the top of the bestseller list on the strength of his easygoing recollections of a career spent in pursuit of providing good times for others, as well as raucous stories like a 1996 incident in which a plane piloted by Buffett and carrying U2 singer Bono was fired upon by Jamaican police, who believed the craft was smuggling drugs.
Buffett closed out the 20th century with the launch of his new label, Mailboat Records, which handled all of his subsequent music projects, including a spate of live recordings taken from dates across the United States. The year 2000 saw him produce his own tequila, naturally named Margaritaville, while his restaurant franchise spread into several locations across Jamaica. In 2003, he teamed with country star Alan Jackson for the single "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere," which reached No. 1 on the Country charts and netted Buffett his first Grammy nomination, as well as the Country Music Association's Vocal Event of the Year. The popularity of the track led to Buffett's first country album, License to Chill, which topped both the Billboard 200 and the Country charts in 2004 on the strength of a Grammy-nominated cover of Hank Williams, Sr.'s classic "Hey Good Lookin'," which also featured C&W superstars Toby Keith, George Strait and Clint Black.
In 2005, Buffett moved into satellite radio with the Radio Margaritaville station, which launched on Sirius that year before adding XM Radio in 2008. He added movie producing to his already overstuffed CV with the 2006 feature "Hoot," based on the young adult novel by Carl Hiassen about Florida conversation, a topic close to the singer's heart. Buffett also appeared in the film and provided songs for its soundtrack. Its failure at the box office was tempered by the launch of Buffett's own beer, Land Shark Lager, in 2006, and the construction of Margaritaville, a 37-acre mini-town constructed by Carnival Cruises on the island of Grand Turk, the capital of the Turks and Caicos island chain, in 2007. The following year, Buffett released his fourth publication, the novel Swine Not?. In 2011, plans were unveiled for Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas and in Shreveport, LA. Previous attempts to establish casinos in Atlantic City and Biloxi, MS were halted by developers, but the $170 million Louisiana project and the Las Vegas deal, which expanded on the existing Margaritaville Café at the Flamingo Casino and Hotel, were underway by the middle of the year.
By Paul Gaita