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How Jimmy Buffett found his vibe in the Keys, and why Florida will miss his presence

Jimmy Buffett branded Key West as a destination and lifestyle from South Florida to the “Far Side of the World,” to quote one of his compositions. And his work will endure long after Saturday’s announcement of his death.

The Mississippi-born troubadour created a fictional “Margaritaville” paradise in song that became a global destination. But even through the 1980s when he’d already written the songs that made him world famous, he appeared the regular Joe sauntering up the stairs into his office atop an old Key West building on Duval Street to pick up his own mail.

By 1985, he’d opened his Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant and retail store downstairs.

There, Buffett would often pop onto its comparatively tiny bar-room stage and try out new material before locals and tourists. The startled patrons munched their Cheeseburger in Paradise specials, swigged Buffett-branded brews and, in 2009, heard sneak preview performances of “A Lot to Drink About,” Buffett’s treatise on the Great Recession of 2008.

“Recession, oppression, depression, good God/CNN keeps bumming me out/I can’t take another doomsday minute/We got a lot to drink, a lot to think, a lot to drink about,” Buffett sang with a smile while strumming his six-string guitar in the Key West joint his royalties made possible.

“Jimmy exemplified our island lifestyle and attitude,” Key West Mayor Teri Johnston said in a statement on Saturday. “He was instrumental in our island’s robust economy in the 1970s through his music and keen business acumen.

“His unwavering commitment to the protection of our ecosystem, manatees and the Florida Everglades has helped preserve our sensitive island environment for generations to come,” she said. “Today, we will all be slipping into our flip-flops and sipping a margarita in your honor.”

The Miami Herald staff photo that ran to accompany a review of Jimmy Buffett’s concerts at the Gusman theater in downtown Miami on Aug. 14-16, 1978. These concerts were recorded and form much of that 1978 Christmas-season’s classic live double-album release of Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band’s “You Had to Be There.”
The Miami Herald staff photo that ran to accompany a review of Jimmy Buffett’s concerts at the Gusman theater in downtown Miami on Aug. 14-16, 1978. These concerts were recorded and form much of that 1978 Christmas-season’s classic live double-album release of Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band’s “You Had to Be There.”

Buffett at the University of Miami

In 2015, the University of Miami bestowed Buffett an honorary doctorate in music. The singer, in turn, delivered the commencement address while clad in a pink stole around his neck and flip-flops on his bare feet — because he was Jimmy Buffett, of course.

He told the grads, “I started off as a bar singer in Coral Gables and I got a doctorate now,” and sent them on their way by quoting from his 1989 tune, “The Pascagoula Run”: “It’s time to see the world/It’s time to kiss a girl/It’s time to cross the wild meridian.”

Worldwide mishap

The songwriter, author and businessman who sang of the worldwide seas from a base in the state’s southernmost city was famously nearly shot down in his private plane over Jamaica and turned that episode into a whimsical song.

Of course, he did.

Buffett opened “Jamaica Mistaica” with a succinct summation of his Florida flip-flops, “Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads” lifestyle by 1996: “Some folks say that I’ve got the perfect life/Three swell kids, lots of toys and a lovely wife/I fly, I sail, I throw caution to the wind/Drift like a stratus cloud above the Caribbean.”

But then, in Buffett’s lyric, he recounted the January 1996 incident in which members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force stationed in Negril’s West End mistakenly tried to shoot down Buffett’s World War II-era twin-propeller seaplane. The authorities thought the pilot was flying weed, the Negril Times reported.

Instead, Buffett who earlier had bragged of “wasting away again in Margaritaville” was transporting fellow musician and passenger, Bono, of the Irish rock group U2, he wrote in his memoir, “A Pirate Looks at Fifty.”

In true Buffett-fashion, he set the police officers’ mea culpa into a jaunty chorus. “Come back, come back back to Jamaica/Don’t chu know we made a big mistaica/We’d be so sad if you told us good-bye/And we promise not to shoot you out of the sky.”

Buffett as environmental champion

In this file photo from Oct. 30, 1996, Jimmy Buffett talks about his efforts to help save the Everglades at a rally in Dania Beach, Florida.
In this file photo from Oct. 30, 1996, Jimmy Buffett talks about his efforts to help save the Everglades at a rally in Dania Beach, Florida.

The globe-trotting Florida favorite of several generations also had homes from Palm Beach County to Hawaii and from the Caribbean island of St. Bart to New York’s Long Island.

Buffett championed the environment before the masses embraced the cause and wound up with a Forbes-estimated billion dollar fortune. He fought to save Florida’s gentle sea creatures, the manatees, as far back as 1979.

And in July, an international team of scientists including from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science found another watery way to enshrine the singer’s name in Florida.

The scientists named a newly discovered species they found in the depths of the Keys the Gnathia jimmybuffetti.

“Has a nice ring to it,” Buffett quipped on the former Twitter in July.

Buffett campaigned for Florida gubernatorial candidates including Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham. In 2016, he performed to promote presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

On Saturday, Clinton, along with presidents Joe Biden and Bill Clinton, posted messages on social media about Buffett’s reach across the seas.

“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,” Biden posted on Facebook. “He was in life as he was performing on stage — full of goodwill and joy, using his gift to bring people together.”

Buffett’s life and death

Jimmy Buffett never really left South Florida, despite his travels and the breadth of his reach and the subjects he illuminated in song, printed page and even the Broadway and local stage — a musical production of “Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville” played Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables in February, 26 years after “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” his collaboration with Herman Wouk, previewed at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1997.

He performed in Florida even after his exit from the world stage.

About six months after a series of five performances at the Key West Theater and the Coffee Butler Amphitheater, and a sold-out date at Hard Rock Live near Hollywood, all in February, Buffett died Friday, Sept. 1.

Buffett, born in Pascagoula on Christmas Day 1946, was 76.

Buffett’s website initially did not specify a cause or a locale. The post simply read: “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 more detailed post on the site later added that Buffett died at his home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and had been battling Merkel Cell Skin Cancer for four years

Buffett’s family included his second wife Jane Slagsvol, whom he wed in 1977 after meeting years earlier in Key West and serenading her in his first hit single, the longing “Come Monday” in 1974. The couple raised three children, daughters Savannah Jane and Sarah Delaney and son Cameron Marley Buffett.

In May, Buffett was in a Boston hospital and had canceled a South Carolina concert date.

“I finish up my treatments tomorrow and heading home to Sag Harbor for a while, and then head to the Bahamas for a fishing trip with old friends, along with paddling and sailing and get myself back in good shape,” Buffett told the Miami Herald in an email on May 19 from the hospital. “Once I am in shape, we will look at the when’s and where’s of shows. I think playing is as therapeutic to me to play as they are for fans to listen, and sing along.”

His final full concert on his Second Wind Tour had been May 6 in San Diego. His last stage performance was an unscheduled three-song set with Coral Reefer Band mates Peter and Brendan Mayer at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, New York, on June 11.

The last song Buffett sang publicly at that short gig: “A Pirate Looks at 40.”

“I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast,” he wrote for the melancholic tune in the Keys way back in 1974. He sang that line again on June 11 as one of the last veteran road warrior touring phenoms popular music unleashed in the 1970s.

“My occupational hazard being my occupation’s just not around/I feel like I’ve drowned, gonna head uptown,” he prophesied in that signature song he wrote nearly 50 years ago amid the sun and salt air adrift in the Florida Keys.

Buffett’s craft and happenstance

An attendee is seen before the start of a Jimmy Buffett concert at the iTHINK Financial Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, Florida on Thursday, December 9, 2021.
An attendee is seen before the start of a Jimmy Buffett concert at the iTHINK Financial Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, Florida on Thursday, December 9, 2021.

Poetic and comical, so much of the music Buffett wrote on 29 studio albums and performed at thousands of concerts to Parrotheads worldwide that led to the restaurants, resorts, casinos, retirement villages and lifestyle products that bore his name happened by a blend of craft and happenstance.

And so much of it baked under the South Florida sun — “a little good luck charm” he mused — in a 1992 song with the telling refrain, “With a little love and luck you will get by.”

‘Margaritaville’ concocted in the Florida Keys

Jimmy Buffett in an undated file photo from the 1970s Key West era that had been provided by his former manager, the late Don Light.
Jimmy Buffett in an undated file photo from the 1970s Key West era that had been provided by his former manager, the late Don Light.

Take for example his 1977 hit recording “Margaritaville,” his only Billboard Top 10 pop single. In April, the song was enshrined in the 2023 National Recordings Registry of the Library of Congress.

“Margaritaville” was completed about 66 miles from Miami south along U.S. 1 and its creation is quintessential Buffett.

“I started writing it on 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 found myself sitting on the sidewalk, staring out overlooking Pigeon Key, one of my favorite landmarks in Florida,” Buffett told the Miami Herald in April in an email interview from his Key West Shrimp Boat Sound studio while recording vocals for what will now be his final studio album, his 30th.

“What better place to sit and try and finish ‘Margaritaville.’ Road cleared in and hour and I had a new song! And learned it on the drive to Key West. That night, I played it for the first time in 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,” he said.

Jimmy Buffett’s South Florida start

Jimmy Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band perform during their concert at the iTHINK Financial Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, Florida on Dec. 9, 2021. Here he performs his signature “Fins” movement.
Jimmy Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band perform during their concert at the iTHINK Financial Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, Florida on Dec. 9, 2021. Here he performs his signature “Fins” movement.

In January 2022, Buffett talked to the Miami Herald in a 90-minute phone interview to help document the 50th anniversary of his career start in Key West.

Buffett detailed how a profane phone call and his own inability to keep his daily planner organized in the Miami of 1971 set in motion events that changed the music world.

“What got me to Key West, of course, was Jerry Jeff Walker because I had left Nashville, gotten a divorce, and nothing was going on there,” Buffett said in the conversation. “But I was working, booking myself in places or through word of mouth on the folk circuit around the South and the Southeast. The great Gamble Rogers, people like that there, were on that circuit through Nashville, the Carolinas, St. Augustine, the Flick and Bubba’s in Miami. So I climbed my way up on that circuit and one of the places there was The Flick, so I had an offer to go to Miami for The Flick.”

The Flick coffeehouse itself is long gone, closed in 1974, a decade after opening. Today, The Flick location is the Titanic Restaurant and Brewery, across from the University of Miami’s baseball stadium on Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables. But in its mid-‘60s, early ‘70s heyday, The Flick was where rising talents in the acoustic folk, pop and rock fields like Buffett, Joni Mitchell and her ex-husband Chuck Mitchell, David Crosby, John Denver, Michael Martin Murphy, Bobby Ingram and Walker honed their skills.

“After the first album came out I went touring across the U.S. but until ‘72 I was basically staying alive by working gigs in South Florida,” Buffett said.

“I met Jerry Jeff when I was a reporter for Billboard magazine in Nashville,” Buffett said. “l had done a story on him and he actually wound up staying at my house and we got a little — we got very — drunk that night. So much so that he was calling home in those days. The operator came on and he was using profanity to his girlfriend or something. They cut my phone off.

“The phone company called me in the morning, and I had a hangover, and they said, ‘Are you ready to behave or what?’’Jerry Jeff said, ‘I’m sorry, Ma’am. If you ever get to Miami and I can do anything for you let me know.’ “

Buffett, who chose the small Old School Square in Delray Beach about 215 miles north from his first Key West gigs to perform his first post-COVID pandemic concerts in May 2021, laughed at the memory.

How Buffett got to the Keys

In this file photo from Key West in July 1985, Jimmy Buffett visits and seranades divers who were aboard a converted tugboat and searching through the remains of a sunken Spanish galleon, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, that sank in a 1622 hurricane after it left Cuba laden with gold riches.
In this file photo from Key West in July 1985, Jimmy Buffett visits and seranades divers who were aboard a converted tugboat and searching through the remains of a sunken Spanish galleon, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, that sank in a 1622 hurricane after it left Cuba laden with gold riches.

“Cut to Miami. I got this job. I called Jerry Jeff and said I was in town and I’m working at The Flick,” Buffett said. Buffett was the opening act on a five bill act that included Fred Neil and Vince Martin.

“I went in to the club to go to meet the owner and he said, ‘No, it’s not this weekend.’ I went, ‘No, it has to be because I don’t have any other job!’”

Buffett had no money. And no place to stay in Miami. But he had Jerry Jeff Walker.

“He said, ‘Come stay with me.’ So I stayed with him and [Teresa] Murphy [Sadler], his girlfriend at the time in Coconut Grove and for two weeks was helping him work on his car. We’ve finished working on the car and he said, ‘Come on. Let’s go to Key West. Have you ever been? And we’ll be back in town for that show.’ So we got into a 1947 Packard and drove to the Keys,” Buffett said.

Buffett had been as far down the island chain as Islamorada in the Florida Keys during his college years. But when the shaggy-haired singer-songwriter looked out the car window when the southbound Packard traveled beyond Islamorada, Buffett’s inspiration burst.

“From Islamorada down I was just like, yeah, riding on a bridge on the ocean. For someone who grew up on the Gulf Coast, I thought this is the most amazing, longest bridge in the world,” Buffett said. “I knew the history of the Flagler railroad from that point. But when I left Islamorada on U.S. 1 and got to Key West, going over the Bahia Honda Bridge and the Seven Mile Bridge and looked, I was going, ‘What is this place? I don’t know what it is but I like it!’”

Buffett said Walker dropped him off after introducing him to a few people and that led to bookings.

Buffett started to meet integral figures at local Keys joints who would figure prominently in his life, including writer Thomas McGuane (who married Buffett’s sister, Laurie, in 1977) and author Tom Corcoran, who would share writing credits on Buffett’s songs, “Cuban Crime of Passion” from Buffett’s third album and first proper Key West LP, “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean” in 1973. Corcoran also shared a songwriter’s credit on “Fins” in 1979.

Buffett’s first performance in the Keys was at Crazy Ophelia’s before moving up to Howie’s Lounge and then The Chart Room, he said.

Howie’s Lounge used to be at 109 Duval St., a few blocks from where Buffett opened his flagship Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant and gift shop at 500 Duval in 1985.

He played the cocktail hour, from 5 to 8. “That bar was like an oasis,” Buffett remembered. “I got a job as a mate on a fishing boat so I played by day, go raise hell all night, sleep for a few hours, and then get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and go catch fish. So I thought, “I have got this made. This is pretty cool!’”

Key West memorials

Corcoran died in Lakeland in February. Now Buffett has joined his former first mate.

Key West responded Saturday with tributes.

City officials said in a statement that “Buffett owned a home in Key West and was a long-time resident. Over the years it was not uncommon for him to hold pop-up performances to the delight of local and visiting fans. City offices are flying flags at half-mast in honor of our native son. City hall will be playing Jimmy’s music in his honor.”

At 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3, Key West hosts a procession in honor of Buffett. Fans are asked to meet at the corner of Front and Duval streets.

The procession will head down Duval with stops at Buffett’s Margaritaville location and end at Truman and Duval. For this “It’s 5 o’Clock Key West” procession, its title a play on the Alan Jackson-Buffett country hit, “It’s Five o’ Clock Somewhere,” people are asked to wear tropical attire and leis. The event will raise money for the Bahama Village Music Program, according to posts on Facebook.

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