On December 25, 1946, Jimmy Buffett was born. Buffett’s distinctive Caribbean-flavored blend of rock and country has made him a popular recording and touring artist for more than 40 years.
Buffett was born in Mississippi and raised in Alabama. There was no particular hint in his childhood of a musical future, though he did play trombone in the school band. He started playing guitar while he was in college, and occasionally raised some extra money as a street performer in New Orleans. After college, he worked as a correspondent for Billboard in Nashville, where he recorded his first few albums.
His first albums, 1970’s Down to Earth and High Cumberland Jubilee, recorded in 1971, but not released until 1976, because the master tapes went missing for a few years, were mainstream folk-rock. They were released on a small label and didn’t get much attention from the public or the critics.
They did draw the notice of ABC/Dunhill Records, though. The label was looking for someone who might fill the market space left by the death of Jim Croce, and they thought Buffett would fill the bill. Buffett has sometimes referred to his first record for ABC, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, as his debut album, and it was certainly more widely noticed than his early small-label albums.
It was on White Sport Coat that Buffett began to develop his trademark style. He worked for several years in the early 1970s on the crew of a private yacht based in Key West, and the laidback lifestyle of the Florida islands was his primary subject. His music was evolving into what Buffett called “drunken Caribbean rock ‘n’ roll,” a blend of country and calypso that found room for both steel guitars and steel drums.
What have come to be known as Buffett’s “Key West” albums continued with Living and Dying in ¾ Time, A1A, named for a Florida highway, and Havana Daydreamin’. Living and Dying produced his first major hit single; “Come Monday” reached the top 5 on the Adult Contemporary Chart and broke into the pop top 40.
Buffett’s breakthrough came in 1977 with Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. His tropical rock sound was now fully formed, and the album generated what is still the biggest hit of his career. “Margaritaville” was a top ten hit, and it transformed Buffett’s career. At the beginning of 1977, he was the opening act for the Eagles, a modest successful singer with a small following; “Margaritaville” hit the radio that summer, and by fall Buffett was headlining his own tour.
He’s been a popular touring act ever since, and reportedly makes more money from tours than from album sales. He doesn’t ignore recording, though; to the contrary, for most of his career, he’s released an album almost every year. And while he never had another hit at the level of “Margaritaville,” he caught radio’s attention occasionally during the late 1970s and early 1980s with such songs as “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Fins,” and “One Particular Harbour.”
Buffett had always had some mild success at country radio, and in the mid-1980s, made a musical shift to appeal more directly to that audience. Riddles in the Sand and Last Mango in Paris left most of the tropical influence behind for a mainstream country sound, and they generated a few minor Country hits, of which “If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me” was the biggest. But the shift to Country wasn’t as successful as Buffett might have hoped, and he returned to his usual style for the 1986 album Floridays.
In the early 1990s, Buffett took a hiatus from recording, focusing more on business—the first in a chain of Margaritaville Cafe restaurants had opened in 1987—and on writing. He’s published novels, children’s books, and memoirs, several of which have been best-sellers; his most recent novels are A Salty Piece of Land and Swine Not? Buffett’s audience had apparently been eager for his return to the studio, and the 1994 album Fruitcakes was his first to reach the top ten.
In 1997, Buffett wrote the songs for a musical adaptation of Herman Wouk’s novel Don’t Stop the Carnival, with a script by Wouk. The musical played for six weeks in Miami; Buffett’s songs were praised, but Wouk had little experience writing for the theater. Potential backers of a move to Broadway urged Buffett to bring in a new writer to tighten the script, but Buffett remained loyal to Wouk. The parallels to Paul Simon’s recent Broadway flop, The Caveman, were striking—a musical by a pop musician, working with a literary author with no theatrical experience (in Simon’s case, the poet Derek Wolcott)—and Buffett wasn’t able to get funding to take the show to New York. He released an album featuring his own versions of the songs, as Simon had done with The Capeman in 1998.
In 2003, Buffett was invited to duet with country singer Alan Jackson on “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” The song topped the country charts, and won a Country Music Association Award, the first award Buffett had won in a career of more than 30 years.
The momentum from that hit helped push Buffett’s next album, License to Chill, to #1, the first time he’d topped the album chart. The album was something of an anomaly, containing relatively few songs written by Buffett. It was mostly covers, and featured lots of duets with current country stars, most notably a version of Hank Williams’s “Hey Good Lookin’” for which Buffett was joined by a murderers’ row of Clint Black, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, and George Strait.
In the 2000s, Buffett’s pace has slowed a little. New studio albums come out only every few years, instead of annually. He still tours, but doesn’t do as many shows as he used to, and doesn’t like to perform back-to-back nights, as reflected in the title of his 1999 live album, Buffett Live: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays. He shows up occasionally as a guest performer on a friend’s album; 2015 found him appearing with both Toby Keith, “Sailboat for Sale”, and Judy Collins, “Someday Soon”, and he was one of several artists to perform new versions of their songs, “Fool’s Paradise”, on the Wynton Marsalis Septet’s 2018 album United We Swing.
Buffett has also contributed songs to a few film soundtracks. He sings “I Don’t Know (Spicoli’s Theme)” for Fast Times at Ridgemont High; for the animated film FernGully, he wrote “If I Have to Eat Someone (It Might As Well Be You),” which is performed by Tone Loc.
And in 2017, he made another venture into the world of musical theater. A plot was constructed around several of Buffett’s songs for the jukebox musical Escape to Margaritaville, which opened in La Jolla, and had a brief Broadway run in 2019.
Much more of Buffett’s music is available for streaming at hoopla, where you’ll also find the documentary Parrot Heads, which ventures into the world of Buffett’s fans. Erin McKenna and Scott L. Pratt are the editors of Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy: The Porpoise Driven Life, and Ryan White is the author of the biography Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way.