Buffett, Jimmy (1946—)

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Buffett, Jimmy (1946—)

Devoted fans—affectionately dubbed Parrot Heads—find escapism in Jimmy Buffett's ballads, vicariously experiencing through his strongly autobiographical songs Buffett's life of beaches, bars, and boats. Yet Buffett's life has been far more than rum-soaked nights and afternoon naps in beachside hammocks. Even though Buffett relishes his image of "the professional misfit," this millionaire "beach bum" is actually an ambitious and clever entrepreneur.

Born on Christmas Day, 1946 in Pascagoula, Mississippi, Jimmy Buffett spent most of his youth in the Catholic school system in Mobile, Alabama. During college he learned to play the guitar and started singing in clubs. While attending the University of Southern Mississippi, about 80 miles from New Orleans, Buffett played regularly at the Bayou Room on Bourbon Street. Once he had a taste of performing, his life course was set. Even though he married and took a job at the Mobile shipyards after college, Buffett continued to spend his nights playing at hotel cocktail lounges.

Lacking the money to move to Los Angeles, where Jimmy had a job offer at a club, the Buffetts moved instead to Nashville. Buffett made a living by writing for Billboard magazine, but he also continued to write new songs. The first of these songs to get recorded was "The Christian?" on Columbia Records' Barnaby Label. In 1970, Buffett recorded an album, Down to Earth, for the Barnaby label. Sales were so disappointing that Barnaby did not release Buffett's next album, High Cumberland Jubilee, recorded in 1971, until 1977. Buffett hired a band and toured in an attempt to promote his first album, but within a few months he ran out of money. Career frustrations took a toll on his marriage.

In his mid-twenties, Buffett found himself broke, divorced, and hating Nashville. Then in 1971, Jimmy Buffett took a trip that changed his life and his music. Fellow struggling singer Jerry Jeff Walker invited Buffett down to his home in Summerland Key, just 25 miles from Key West. It was the beginning of Key West's "decade of decadence," and Buffett quickly immersed himself in the Conch subculture's nonstop party that they referred to as the "full-tilt boogie." To maintain the freedom of his new lifestyle Buffett ran up bar tabs, literally played for his supper, and got involved in the local cottage industry—drug smuggling.

The lifestyle and the local characters became the substance of Buffett's songs. The first of the Key West-inspired songs appeared in 1973 when he landed a record deal with ABC/Dunhill and recorded A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean. The tongue-in-cheek "The Great Filling Station Holdup" made it to number 58 on Billboard's country charts. The most infamous song from the album, "Why Don't We Get Drunk (and Screw)," became a popular jukebox selection and the favorite Buffett concert sing-along song.

ABC's rising star, Jim Croce, died in 1973, and the record company looked to Jimmy Buffett to fill his shoes. They even promoted Buffett's next album, 1974's Living and Dying in 3/4 Time, with a fifteen-minute promotional film that showed in ABC-owned theaters. "Come Monday" made it all the way to number 30 on the billboard pop charts. For years, Buffett had been making reference to, even introducing, his mythical Coral Reefer Band. In the summer of 1975 he put together an actual Coral Reefer Band to tour and promote his third ABC/Dunhill album, A1A. The album contains "A Pirate Looks at Forty," which became a central tale in the mythos Buffett was spinning, and a virtual theme song for every Buffett fan as they neared middle age. 1976's Havana Daydreamin' got good reviews and fed the frenzy of his growing cult following; but it was 1977's Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude that was the defining moment of his career. The album's hit single, "Margaritaville," stayed in the Billboard Top 40 charts for fifteen weeks, peaking at number eight. That summer "Margaritaville" permeated the radio and Buffett opened for the Eagles tour. The exposure helped Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude go platinum.

The song "Margaritaville" gave a name to the place fans escaped when they listened to Jimmy Buffett's music. And Margaritaville was wherever Jimmy Buffett was playing his music, be that Key West, Atlanta, or Cincinnati. Supposedly it was at a concert in Cincinnati in the early 1980s that Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmidt looked out at the fans in wild Hawaiian shirts and shark fin hats and dubbed them Parrot Heads. By the late 1980s the Parrot Head subculture had grown to the point that Buffett had become one of the top summer concert draws. The concerts were giant parties with colorful costumes, plentiful beer, and almost everyone singing along out of key with the songs they knew by heart. The concerts were more about the experience than about hearing Jimmy Buffett sing.

Buffett soon found ways to extend the experience beyond the concerts. Although he continued to average an album a year, he also began to develop diverse outlets for his creativity, and aggressively marketed the Margaritaville mythos. The Caribbean Soul line of clothing appeared in 1984, and in 1985 he opened Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville store in Key West. A few months after opening the store, he sent out a 650 copy initial mailing of Coconut Telegraph, a combination fan newsletter and advertising flyer for Buffett paraphernalia. It was in the April 1985 issue that the term Parrot Head was first officially used to refer to Buffett's fans. By the end of the decade, the newsletter had 20,000 subscribers.

Buffet reasoned that anyone who wanted to read his newsletter would buy a book with his name on it. His first literary effort, in 1988, was Jolly Mon, a children's book he co-wrote with his daughter Savannah Jane. The following year, Buffett's collection of short stories, Tales from Margaritaville, became a bestseller. His first novel, Where is Joe Merchant?, warranted a six figure advance and became a bestseller in 1992. By this time Buffett had opened a Margaritaville cafe next to the store in Key West. Eventually, he opened Margaritaville clubs and gift shops in New Orleans, Charleston, and Universal Studios in Florida.

More than anything else, Jimmy Buffett is a lifestyle artist. Whether it be a Caribbean meal, a brightly colored shirt, a CD, or a live performance, Buffett transports his fans to the state of mind that is Margaritaville.

—Randy Duncan

Further Reading:

Eng, Steve. Jimmy Buffett: The Man from Margaritaville Revealed. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Humphrey, Mark, and Harris Lewine. The Jimmy Buffett Scrapbook. New York, Citadel Press, 1995.

Ryan, Thomas. The Parrot Head Companion: An Insider's Guide to Jimmy Buffett. Secaucus, New Jersey, Carol Publishing, 1998.