There are not too many times when the passing of a luminary affects me, but the news that national icon Jimmy Buffett passed away at age 76, late on September 1 managed to hit home. People from so many areas have adopted him, but in South Florida, he just felt different. Partly because he was considered one of our own, but the style and mood he tapped into was tangible. We grew up with him because it felt like he was singing about us.
It is a testament that you can merely mention his name and almost anyone will have an instant reaction. That is because Buffett was precisely the definition of an icon. The man had a career spanning half a century, and while he rarely made a direct impact on the charts, he was a constant fixture who had a fan base that seemed to always be growing as he toured constantly.
Jimmy Buffett was a culture unto himself.
Beyond his music, Buffett managed to live a life that was consummate, in that he parlayed his success into opportunities in many arenas. His Margaritaville Cafe chain has become a staple, and it has spun off side ventures with a namesake line of spirits and also grocery store items. He was a successful author of numerous books, hitting the top of the bestseller lists for both fiction and non-fiction. He also partnered with novelist Herman Wouk to adapt his novel “Don’t Stop The Carnival” into a stage production. Another testament to his enduring presence is being granted his own Parrothead Channel on XM-Sirius radio.
Everyone is familiar with the beach lifestyle he delivered, but it was not a simple tourist version of the tropics. Early in his career, he worked in Key West, busking and singing in bars. He traveled the Caribbean, and as a licensed pilot he would fly himself to the various islands on his own Grumman Albatross called “The Hemisphere Dancer.” Buffett wove stories about his days in The Keys, when residents were fed up with the local politicians and voted for their favorite bartender Tony Tarracino, who ran the famous Captain Tony’s Saloon, as the mayor..
His was a career that was enviable just through its longevity. His perpetual tours constantly sold out, especially so in landlocked cities. The concerts would generate tailgate parties ahead of showtimes that were a marvel, and he would frequently have the screens behind him showing videos filmed in the parking lot before taking the stage.
Buffett often delivered cameos and guest appearances in film and television. He supplied songs on a number of soundtracks. (If you ever rewatch “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” note the bouncy guitar of “Spicoli’s Theme: I Don’t Know”). He was a repeat guest on “Hawaii 5-0,” playing Frank Bama, a character appropriated from his own novel.
Buffett even managed to make an impact with a 1-second blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in “Jurassic World.” He was viral for a time, for a perfect depiction in the face of panic. The setting had some product placement where, in the main street part of the theme park, you can see signage for The Margaritaville Cafe. In the scene where the pterodactyls descend on the park, as the customers scatter, you can see Buffet clutching two of the cocktails as he races for cover.
Yet, music was his true identifier. Later in his career, musicians would turn to Jimmy Buffett, as they were just as entranced as his fans with what he tapped into. This is a performer who rarely impacted the industry in conventional ways. In concert, he would say how he has never won any industry awards, but was thrilled that the fans kept showing up. It led to his producing nearly three dozen albums and touring right up to the end, all with a musical style that defied genre labeling. “Trop Rock,” Calypso, “Gulf & Western,” and other attempts to categorize Buffett have been made, but he was his own genre.
Buffett sang “Mack The Knife” with Frank Sinatra on his second “Duets” album. Zac Brown mined the Buffett lifestyle as he collaborated with him for the fun and engaging “Knee Deep.” And of course, nearly 30 years after his defining “Margaritaville” was released, Buffett managed to hit another party standard when he joined Alan Jackson for “It’s 5-O’Clock Somewhere.” Not only has this risen to become a tiki bar requirement, but the tropical troubadour finally got himself recognition, as Jackson and Buffett won a CMA Award for Vocal Event Of The Year.
Whether you called yourself a “Parrothead” or just a casual listener, his songs wove their way through this nation, delivering a tropical resort respite, regardless of where you were located. Yes, “Margaritaville” is the kind of timeless classic any musician would crave to have as their own, but his discography is surprisingly sublime, once you start digging, like carving into the sand to find more prized shells. I say picking a favorite is folly, because he has such a breadth of a catalog that gems are seen through the decades.
“A Pirate Looks At 40” is a concert mainstay that plays like a hymn, about a drug smuggler who is facing middle age. “The Pascagoula Run” is a kicking romp about a teen whose crazy uncle takes him out for a night on the town. His album “Fruitcakes” is filled with touchstone songs, and you cannot help but smile through “Everybody’s Got A Cousin In Miami.” The sweeping “One Particular Harbor” seamlessly goes from being beautifully melodic to a raucous carnival.
One that I treasure is his calm “Schoolboy Heart”, where Buffett describes his character through the various aspects of his form, saying “Franenstein’s got nothing on this body of mine.” I would play it for my toddler daughter, and while sitting in my lap, we would sing and learn her body parts.
I got a school boy heart / A novelist eye / Stout sailor’s legs / And a license to fly
I came with nomad feet / And some wandering toes / That walk up my longboard / And hang off the nose
You did not need to be a Floridian or a coastal resident to find an appreciation for the vibe Jimmy Buffett delivered. This is a testament to him as an artist, that those who listened deeper than just the standards will find musical keepsakes, all of which transport you when needed. His music was not ersatz “vacation songs.” He lived the life and could deliver accurate moods from the Caribbean and other locales.
He was the ultimate tour guide, and listeners were transported as he happily shared the experience. His is a legacy that will continue to deliver smiles, and we can all be happy for the man who has finally found his lost salt shaker.