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Jimmy Buffett, musical ‘Mayor of Margaritaville,’ dies at 76


Jimmy Buffett, the singer-songwriter and Mayor of Margaritaville, the mythical paradise of tropical breezes, frozen cocktails and laid-back escapism that inspired his greatest hit and fostered a hugely successful branding and business empire, died Friday. He was 76.

“Jimmy passed away peacefully on the night of September 1st surrounded by his family, friends, music and dogs,” a statement posted on his website and social media accounts said, adding: “He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many.” No cause of death was disclosed.

Mr. Buffett, a frustrated Nashville country artist, found his muse when he moved to Key West, Fla., in spring 1972, leaving behind a failed marriage and stalled career. Surrounded by blue water, he donned his Hawaiian shirts, cutoff shorts and flip-flops, grabbed an old blender, and embraced the quirky beach community with his musical soul.

“It was a scene,” he told Playboy. “Everyone went out and applauded the sunset every night. Bales of marijuana washed up on the shore. There were great cheap Cuban restaurants. . . . Key West seemed like the End: East Coast Division — a common reason people wind up there, especially writers, artists, musicians and other interesting derelicts, drawn by the idea that Key West is the final stroke of a great comma in the map of North America, suggesting more to come but maybe not.”

Over the next several years, he helped birth tropical rock, a blend of calypso, rock, folk, country and pop music, and rode its vibe into a five-decade career that married his alluring music with astute business acumen.

His commercial breakthrough was the 1977 release “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” which featured his only top-10 hit, the mellow and wistful singalong “Margaritaville.” He sold more than 20 million albums, his popularity propelled by such tunes as “Come Monday,” “Havana Daydreamin’ ” and “Son of a Son of a Sailor.”

An incurable storyteller who populated his songs with tales of beach bums, drug smugglers and pirates, he also wrote best-selling books including the short-story collection “Tales From Margaritaville” (1989), the novel “Where Is Joe Merchant?” (1992) and the memoir-travel diary “A Pirate Looks at Fifty” (1998).

Tabbed by Rolling Stone as “rock’s romantic poet-pirate,” he became a guru for Parrotheads, the millions of fans who followed him and his band, the Coral Reefers, on their annual, sold-out cross-country tours.

With his tanned face, receding blond locks and ever-present smile, Mr. Buffett projected an exuberant but down-to-earth presence. His followers — bedecked in feathered headdresses, homemade shark-fin hats and grass skirts — arrived early for concerts and tailgated with frozen margaritas and jerk chicken in concert venue parking lots. Some brought giant sandboxes to simulate the beach and continued the boozy celebration after the concert ended.

“There are people out there looking for a good time for a few days a year,” Mr. Buffett told Rolling Stone in 1996. “We come to town and we’re the carnival or the Mardi Gras. People blow off steam and then go back and become basically law-abiding citizens. But to see them on those two days, you’d go, ‘My God, this is the most drunk and boisterous maniac crowd you ever saw!’ ”

His appeal, beyond his musical repertoire, was his contagious sense of fun and adventure. His songs — some mischievously titled “Fruitcakes,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and “Why Don’t We Get Drunk? (and Screw)” — were mostly lighthearted paeans to an idyllic island life.

But “Margaritaville,” a melancholy story of lost love and resigned regret, remained his signature anthem and featured a refrain that resounded far beyond his fan base:

Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville

Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt

Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame

But I know it’s nobody’s fault

He claimed to have tossed off the song in six minutes, later telling the CBS News program “60 Minutes” that it was “just another song going on the album, you know? That’s the way I looked at it. And then — never in my wildest dream did I ever think it would do what it did. Never.”

A self-described “Mark Twainer from way back” — for his love of colloquial satire — Mr. Buffett long held court at Key West’s Chart Room cocktail lounge, exchanging stories with fishermen, sailors and drug runners as well as visiting authors such as Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison and Truman Capote.

“He distilled everything about Key West into his music,” said William McKeen, whose 2011 book “Mile Marker Zero” explored the writers, artists, musicians and actors who frequented Key West in the 1970s. “There’s something about the place that is really intoxicating. Everything about the culture there points you toward hedonistic pleasure.”

Mr. Buffett found a “gumbo of musical styles” in Key West, McKeen added, that spoke to him and drove to him write songs “about the crazy people in this town.”

Mr. Buffett’s beach bum image defined his stage persona, but he evolved into a savvy businessman.

Forbes estimated his worth at $550 million, and he built a long-term friendship with financier Warren Buffett, whom he called “Uncle Warren” even though a DNA test determined they were unrelated.

With Uncle Warren as his mentor and Jimmy Buffett’s wife Jane as a key business influence, he began in the late 1980s to build the aspirational Margaritaville brand with a chain of restaurants, resorts, clubs, merchandise businesses and retirement communities.

As he began to accumulate boats, planes and properties across the country, including a 500-acre estate in Georgia, he deftly navigated the gap between the original outlier Jimmy Buffett and the mogul Jimmy Buffett. He may have socialized with movie star Jack Nicholson and “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson, but his restaurants were unpretentious — serving “volcano nachos,” not wagyu.

Excelling in business, he told Playboy, was his way of maintaining independence, the freedom to do as he pleased, which seemed to satisfy his legion of fans watching out for any signs of inauthenticity.

James William Buffett was born in Pascagoula, Miss., on Christmas Day 1946, and grew up in Mobile, Ala.

Both parents held office jobs for shipbuilding companies. Though he had a strained relationship with his father, Mr. Buffett was close with his grandfather, who had been a sea captain and regaled him with tales of the high seas that triggered a lifelong passion for the water.

After high school, he began a lurching journey through college, starting at the Montgomery campus of Auburn University, transferring to a junior college in Poplarville, Miss., and later enrolling at the University of Southern Mississippi. An indifferent student, he said he embraced higher education as a way to avoid being drafted into service in Vietnam.

He began playing the guitar at an Auburn fraternity house in 1964, mostly to attract women. Soon he formed his first band and played on weekends at bars and on street corners in New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss. In 1969, he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Southern Mississippi, then headed to Nashville with the goal of breaking into a recording career.

A day job as correspondent for Billboard magazine brought him unexpected status and entree to the local music scene. In the early 1970s, he released two albums that sold in the hundreds and realized that he felt off-kilter in the country genre.

Frustrated by the weather, a worsening first marriage (to Alabama beauty queen Margie Washichek), and a career that seemed to be ending before it began, he headed to Coconut Grove, Fla., at the invitation of singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker and his girlfriend, Teresa “Murphy” Clark.

One day, in what Mr. Buffett described as a life-altering decision, they jumped into Walker’s 1947 Packard bound for Key West and arrived in time for the sunset, and for a daily ritual in which hippies free-danced on the beach to conga drums.

As the sun set and the crowd applauded, Mr. Buffett had an epiphany that this tropical paradise, with its scoundrels, literary lights, smugglers and fishermen, would be home as well as endlessly fertile ground for songwriting material. It was, for 20 years — until he began to find it had become too commercial.

“He was engaging and fun and very smart,” said Clark, now a commercial real estate executive based in Tampa. “We always joked that he was the lightweight, writing fun albums like ‘A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean.’ And look who turned out to be the big star.”

In 1977, Mr. Buffett married Jane Slagsvol, whom he met in Key West while she was on spring break from college. The Eagles played at their wedding reception. The couple had a daughter, Savannah, before separating for several years. They reunited in the early 1990s and had two more children, Sarah and Cameron. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Buffett continued to release albums throughout the 1980s and ’90s but, finding his musical career was in a trough, he launched his own Margaritaville record label in an effort to revive his popularity and out of a desire to have more control over his career.

He approached Corona beer about sponsoring his concerts before tour sponsorship became a trend. The deal was credited with dramatically increasing Corona sales in the United States. He licensed the Margaritaville name and opened his first themed restaurant in Key West in 1987.

Along with his wife and business partner John Cohlan, Mr. Buffett grew ambitious about expanding the brand and opened more venues. He also sold an expanding line of Margaritaville merchandise, including shoes, T-shirts, flip-flops, varieties of tequila and beer, and the “lost shaker of salt” referred to in the song. He created Radio Margaritaville, a streaming radio station devoted to his music, which is offered on Sirius XM.

He branded products including Margaritaville Margarita mix and partnered with Outback Steakhouse in 2002 to open a restaurant chain called Cheeseburger in Paradise. It closed in 2020 after years of struggle.

As Parrotheads continued to swarm to his concerts along with their children and grandchildren, Mr. Buffett pivoted to a more family-friendly image and introduced a line of children’s books. “He understands his brand, which has substantial reach,” Warren Buffett told the New York Times in 2016. “One of the secrets to his success is that he never really loses any fans.”

One of his rare misfires was a musical stage adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1965 book “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” about a middle-aged man who flees to the Caribbean. His jukebox musical “Escape to Margaritaville,” which featured his vast discography, had a short and poorly received Broadway run in 2018 but enjoyed a long, critic-proof national tour before the onset of novel coronavirus pandemic cut it short.

His voracious commercial appetite and his restless creative drive was evident to anyone looking behind the free-flowing beach clothes and the party-time persona.

“I remember, years ago, seeing kind of a has-been country singer working — when I first moved to Nashville — working in a bar in a Holiday Inn,” he told “60 Minutes.” “And it was obvious that it had been somebody that’d been there and come back down, and I never wanted to make that run back down. ‘Remember me back in 1977? I had this one hit, “Margaritaville.” ’ I did not want to be one of those people.”

POST AUTHOR: Glenn Rifkin

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