Jimmy Buffett - Biography
By David Downs
Internationally acclaimed sea-faring troubadour Jimmy Buffett is a monster of the pop and country charts with more than forty releases. However, none of his albums or singles ever approached the impact of his hit song “Margaritaville,” the well-known ode to Key West, Florida that appeared on his 1977 album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (1977 MCA). The Caribbean vibes and wry, forlorn narrative of excess in “Margaritaville” offer a blueprint to Buffett's image, which has accumulated an army of acolytes called “Parrotheads” the world over. With “Margaritaville,” Buffett became more than a man; he became a way of life for the half-baked residents of the 1970s and every generation since. He’s branched out into plays, books, restaurants, bars, and cruises, transcending the inherent kookiness of his traveling troubadour act through sheer endurance.
Buffett was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and is of Puerto-Rican, French, and Spanish heritage, just like the Caribbean region he would soon inhabit. He lived in several spots in the South and graduated from McGill Institute for Boys in 1964. He then attended The University of Southern Mississippi, learned guitar, and joined a fraternity before getting a bachelor's degree in history in 1969. Buffett then went to work as a music journalist for Billboard magazine in Nashville, but soon quit to make his own music.
His first album, Down to Earth (1970 Barnaby), was released in 1970 and is straight-ahead early '70s folk-rock, but it is rather earnest and tame when compared to later “Why Don't We Get Drunk (and Screw)” standards. The album failed to sell and the follow-up High Cumberland Jubilee (1976 Barnaby) didn’t materialize until 1976 even though it was recorded in 1971. Jimmy bristled at the Nashville star system and hit Miami, followed by Key West where he fell in love with the motley, decadent scene. He signed a record deal with ABC-Dunhill, recording again in Nashville. 1973’s A White Sport Coat and Pink Crustacean (1973 MCA) showed Buffett emerging from his shell, but he was essentially just sitting in with studio musicians. A hugely charismatic stage performer, he hand-crafted a cult following out of the thick, humid Southern air and could sell tens of thousands of records before the industry even knew who he was.
In 1974, Buffett formed the Coral Reefer Band in Key West and by 1977 the band was recording as a unit in Miami. Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes mainly featured Jimmy Buffett, Greg "Fingers" Taylor, Michael Utley, Harry Dailey, Kenneth Buttrey, Michael Jeffry, and Billy Puett. The opening flute notes of “Margaritaville” make up what is perhaps one of the most well-known melodies in the American songbook. Subdued percussion and a classic verse-choruses-verse structure made this song a smash pop hit. The smooth, easy, clear, crisp timbre of “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” perfectly meshed with Buffett’s tales of “good times and riches and son of a bitches.” The album went to number two on the Billboard Country Albums chart and number 12 on the Pop Albums chart. He began opening for the Eagles and Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes soon went platinum, which it would do many times over during the following years.
The single “Cheeseburger in Paradise” from 1978’s Son of a Son of a Sailor (1978 MCA) charted at number 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 with its tale of falling off the clean living wagon for red meat – an apt metaphor for Buffett’s entire life. The album went platinum and the next year’s Volcano (1979 MCA) went gold. A slew of albums followed and charted, such as Riddles in the Sand (1984 MCA), which hit number 95 on the Billboard 200. Buffett didn't own the top of the charts, but rather he was a solid, idiosyncratic performer who toured relentlessly – an ethic that pays dividends to this day.
In 1985, Buffett opened the original Margaritaville Store in Key West. In 1987 he began training to become a pilot, getting certified in single engine amphibious aircraft before purchasing one. He also opened a bar in Key West. In 1989 he began charity work in the region and released the best-selling book Tales From Margaritaville. His next book, Where Is Joe Merchant?, also cracked the New York Times Best Seller list. Amid more yearly releases, Buffett opened a second theme store in New Orleans in 1992.
Fruitcakes (1994 MCA) returned Buffett to the top of the charts with a Billboard 200 number five spot. The percussive intricacy of single “Fruitcakes” and pedal steel lap guitar presaged the platinum career of Jack Johnson. Buffett stayed near the top of the charts with literary hit Barometer Soup (1995 Margaritaville) and Banana Wind (1996 Margaritaville). He also made headlines in 1996 when his seaplane was shot at by Jamaican authorities who assumed he was a smuggler. Several live albums came out before License to Chill (2004 Mailboat/RCA) provided the band's first Billboard 200 number one hit in 2004. 2006's Take the Weather with You (2006 RCA) also cracked the top five. In 2009 he released Buffet Hotel, followed by a live release titled Volcano-Live 2011 (2011). Buffet performs always.