Jimmy Buffett, singer whose 'Margaritaville' became anthem and empire, is dead at 76
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Jimmy Buffett, singer whose 'Margaritaville' became anthem and empire, is dead at 76
Jimmy Buffett rehearsing with the band “El Floridita” at one of its member’s homes in Havana, March 21, 2016. Buffett, the singer, songwriter, author, sailor and entrepreneur whose roguish brand of island escapism on hits like “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise” made him something of a latter-day folk hero, especially among his devoted following of so-called Parrot Heads, died on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. He was 76. (Lisette Poole/The New York Times)

by Bill Friskics-Warren

NEW YORK, NY.- Jimmy Buffett, the singer, songwriter, author, sailor and entrepreneur whose roguish brand of island escapism on hits like “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise” made him something of a latter-day folk hero, especially among his devoted following of so-called Parrot Heads, died on Friday. He was 76.

His death was announced in a statement on his website. It did not say where he died or specify a cause. Buffett had rescheduled a series of concerts this spring, saying he had been hospitalized, although he offered no details.

Peopled with pirates, smugglers, beach bums and barflies, Buffett’s genial, self-deprecating songs conjured a world of sun, saltwater and nonstop parties animated by the calypso country-rock of his limber Coral Reefer Band. His live shows abounded with singalong anthems and festive tropical iconography, making him a perennial draw on the summer concert circuit, where he built an ardent fan base akin to the Grateful Dead’s Deadheads.

Buffett found success primarily with albums. He enjoyed only a few years on the pop singles chart, and “Margaritaville,” his 1977 breakthrough hit, was his only single to reach the pop Top 10.

“I blew out my flip-flop/Stepped on a pop-top/Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home,” he sang woozily to the song’s lilting Caribbean rhythms. “But there’s booze in the blender/And soon it will render/That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.”

Buffett’s music was often described as “Gulf and western” — a play on the name of the conglomerate Gulf & Western, the former parent of Paramount Pictures, as well as nod to his fusion of laid-back twang and island-themed lyrics.

His songs tended to be of two main types: wistful ballads like “Come Monday” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” and clever up-tempo numbers like “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Some were both, like “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” a 1978 homage to Buffett’s seafaring grandfather, written with the producer Norbert Putnam.

“I’m just a son of a son, son of a son/Son of a son of a sailor,” he sang. “The sea’s in my veins, my tradition remains/I’m just glad I don’t live in a trailer.”

The Caribbean and the Gulf Coast were Buffett’s muses, and no place was more important than Key West, Florida. He first visited the island at the urging of Jerry Jeff Walker, his sometime songwriting and drinking partner, after a gig fell through in Miami in the early 1970s.

“When I found Key West and the Caribbean, I wasn’t really successful yet,” Buffett said in a 1989 interview with The Washington Post. “But I found a lifestyle, and I knew that whatever I did would have to work around my lifestyle.”

The locales provided Buffett with more than just a breezy, sailing life and grist for his songwriting. They were also the impetus for the creation of a tropical-themed business empire that included a restaurant franchise, a hotel chain and boutique tequila, T-shirt and footwear lines, all of which made him a millionaire hundreds of times over.

“I’ve done a bit of smugglin’, and I’ve run my share of grass,” Buffett sang of his early days trafficking marijuana in the Florida Keys in “A Pirate Looks at Forty.”

“I made enough money to buy Miami,” he went on, alluding to his subsequent entrepreneurial pursuits. “But I pissed it away so fast/Never meant to last/Never meant to last.”

His claim to squandering his wealth notwithstanding, Buffett proved to be a shrewd manager of his considerable fortune; Forbes this year estimated his net worth at $1 billion.

“If Mr. Buffett is a pirate, to borrow one of his favorite images, it is hardly because of his days palling around with dope smugglers in the Caribbean,” the critic Anthony DeCurtis wrote in a 1999 essay for The New York Times. “He is a pirate in the way that Bill Gates and Donald Trump have styled themselves, as plundering rebels, visionary artists of the deal, not bound by the societal restrictions meant for smaller, more careful men.”

(The comparison to Trump was strictly financial; Buffett was a Democrat.)

Buffett was also an accomplished author. He was one of only six writers, along with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and William Styron, to top both the Times’ fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists. By the time he wrote “Tales From Margaritaville” (1989), the first of his three No. 1 bestsellers, he had abandoned the hedonistic lifestyle he once embraced.

“I could wind up like a lot of my friends did, burned out or dead, or redirect the energy,” he told The Washington Post in 1989. “I’m not old, but I’m getting older. That period of my life is over. It was fun — all that hard drinking, hard drugging. No apologies.”

“I still have a very happy life,” he went on. “I just don’t do the things I used to do.”

James William Buffett was born on Dec. 25, 1946, in Pascagoula, Mississippi, one of three children of Mary Loraine (Peets) and James Delaney Buffett Jr. Both parents were longtime employees of the Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Co. His father was a manager of government contracts, and his mother, known simply as Peets, was an assistant director of industrial relations.

Jimmy was raised Roman Catholic in Mobile, Alabama, where he took up the trombone at St. Ignatius Catholic School. He went to high school at another Catholic institution in Mobile, the McGill Institute.

In 1964 he enrolled in classes at Auburn University. He flunked out and later attended the University of Southern Mississippi. He also began performing in local nightclubs. He graduated with a degree in history in 1969, before moving to the French Quarter of New Orleans and playing in a cover band on Bourbon Street.

He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1970, hoping to make it as a country singer while working as a journalist for Billboard magazine. (Buffett was credited with breaking the story about the disbanding of the pioneering bluegrass duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.) “Down to Earth,” his debut album, was released on Andy Williams’ Barnaby label that year. It sold a reported 324 copies.

Buffett’s second album for Barnaby, “High Cumberland Jubilee,” went unreleased until 1976, long after he had signed with ABC-Dunhill and recorded “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean” (1973), which featured the debauched party anthem “Why Don’t We Get Drunk.”

Buffett had a fondness for puns. The “Pink Crustacean” title was inspired by the song “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation),” a 1957 pop hit for country singer Marty Robbins. Another album was called “Last Mango in Paris.”

Buffett’s album “Living and Dying in 3/4 Time” (1974) included a version of comedian Lord Buckley’s “God’s Own Drunk.” “Come Monday,” a lovelorn track from that record, became his first Top 40 hit.

“A1A” (also 1974) was named for the oceanfront highway that runs along Florida’s Atlantic coastline. It was Buffett’s first album to contain references to Key West and maritime life. But it was his platinum-selling “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” (1977), which contained the blockbuster hit “Margaritaville,” that finally catapulted him to stardom. “Fins,” another hit single, was released in 1979.

A series of popular releases followed, culminating in 1985 with “Songs You Know by Heart,” a compilation of Buffett’s most beloved songs to date. It became the bestselling album of his career.

Buffett also opened the first of his many Margaritaville stores in 1985. That was the year that Timothy B. Schmit, a former Eagles bassist who was then a member of the Coral Reefer Band, coined the term Parrot Heads to describe Buffett’s staunch legion of fans, the bulk of whom were baby boomers.

A supporter of conservationist causes, Buffett moved away from the Keys in the late 1970s because of the area’s increasing commercialization. He initially relocated to Aspen, Colorado, before making his home on St. Barts in the Caribbean. He also had houses in Palm Beach, Florida, and Sag Harbor, on eastern Long Island.

In addition to touring and recording, activities he pursued into the 2020s, Buffett wrote music for movies including “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Urban Cowboy.” He also appeared in movies, including “Rancho Deluxe” and “Jurassic World,” and on television shows including the “Hawaii Five-O” revival of the 2010s, on which he starred as helicopter pilot Frank Bama, a character from his bestselling 1992 novel, “Where Is Joe Merchant?”

An avid pilot, Buffett owned several aircraft and often flew himself to his shows. In 1994 he crashed one of his airplanes in waters near Nantucket, Massachusetts, while taking off. He survived the accident, swimming to safety, with only minor injuries.

In 1996 another of his planes, Hemisphere Dancer, was shot at by the Jamaican police, who suspected the craft was being used to smuggle marijuana. Onboard the airplane, which sustained little damage, were Bono of U2; Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records; and Buffett’s wife and two daughters. Jamaican authorities later admitted the incident was a case of mistaken identity, inspiring Buffett to write the song “Jamaica Mistaica,” a droll sendup of the affair.

Buffett is survived by his wife, Jane (Slagsvol) Buffett; two daughters, Savanah Jane Buffett and Sarah Buffett; a son, Cameron; two grandsons; and two sisters, Lucy and Laurie Buffett.

In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Buffett was asked about a previous remark in which he somewhat incongruously cited the wholesome choral director Mitch Miller and the marauding Gulf Coast pirate Jean Lafitte as two of his greatest inspirations.

“Mitch Miller, for sure,” Buffett said, doubtless in acknowledgment of the way his own fans sang along with him at concerts, as Miller’s television audiences were asked to. “In the old days: ‘Sing Along with Mitch’? Who didn’t?”

“But Jean Lafitte was my hero as a romantic character,” he continued. “I’m not sure he was a musical influence. His lifestyle influenced me, most definitely, ’cause I’m the very opposite of Mitch Miller.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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