Jimmy Buffett, who has died aged 76, was an American singer-songwriter whose country-tinged soft rock celebrated the laid-back culture of the Florida Keys on the Caribbean coast of the US. Sometimes known as the “tropical troubadour”, his songs often featured the voices of characters who appreciated the aimless pleasures of beach life: smoking weed, drinking rum and eating boiled shrimps, messing around in boats and generally watching the world go by.
It was a lifestyle led by Buffett himself for a number of years before he became a successful musician and businessman, and was notably portrayed in his most popular composition, Margaritaville, about a drifter who sits around strumming his guitar on the front porch, doing little more than watching the passers-by and – highlight of a long summer – getting himself a tattoo.
Margaritaville spent 22 weeks on the US singles chart in 1977, peaking at No 8 and helping to put the Keys – a coral archipelago off the southern coast of Florida – on the tourism map. Included in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2016, earlier this year the song was inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry as an “audio treasure of cultural, historical and aesthetic importance”.
Critics were less convinced of Margaritaville’s value, or of Buffett’s “Gulf & Western” musical style, which Rolling Stone once referred to rather disparagingly as “a surfy, sandy corner of pop music”. Nonetheless he had a huge following of loyal admirers in the US and became a billionaire on the back of his popularity, setting up a string of Margaritaville-themed shops, restaurants and cafes across the country before expanding the brand to include resort complexes, a clothing range, a radio station, alcoholic and soft drinks, various food items and even a line in home furnishing.
He also made money as an author with bestselling novels that mirrored his musical interests, including Tales from Margaritaville (1989), set on the imaginary island of Snake Bite Key, and A Salty Piece of Land (2004), featuring the equally fictional tropical territory of Cayo Loco.
Buffett was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi, but grew up in the nearby port town of Mobile in Alabama, where his parents, James and Mary (nee Peets), both worked in administrative roles for the Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Company. After attending McGill–Toolen Catholic high school he went to Auburn University in Alabama, where he took up the guitar, neglected his studies and dropped out after a year. Restarting his education at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, he graduated with a history degree in 1969.
After a period playing in clubs in New Orleans, Buffett moved in 1970 to Nashville, Tennessee, to record his first low-key album, Down to Earth, while working as a journalist on Billboard music magazine.
In 1971 he gave up on writing in favour of relocating to Key West, an island in the Straits of Florida that is nearer to Cuba than Miami. In what was then a rather run-down, pre-tourist-boom setting, he generally lived the life he sang about in his songs – busking, playing in bars for drinking money, hiring himself out as a crew member on yachts and lazing around in the sun.
Buffett’s second album, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean (1973), made few waves but earned him enough cash to buy a small boat and retrospectively became one of his best regarded LPs.
A handful of other albums followed before his breakthrough in 1977 with Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, which included Margaritaville and reached No 12 on the US album charts. Its success led to support slots with the Eagles, the Little River Band and Fleetwood Mac, then long-running tours of his own.
The life of a struggling musician at an end, Buffett soon switched into business mode, ditching his more relaxed lifestyle in favour of building up a multitude of entrepreneurial interests connected with his music, particularly after the release of his popular greatest hits compilation, Songs You Know By Heart, in 1985.
So it was that a man who sang about the simple life became an ambitious and hard-working businessman employing thousands of people and with a personal fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $1bn.
Buffett’s enterprises did not deflect him from his music, however. Releasing more than 50 albums across his career, he toured almost continually and was working on another LP at the time of his death.
He channelled some of his wealth into environmental initiatives in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, eventually moving away from the Keys as the area became increasingly commercialised. He then made his home on the Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy, although he also had houses in Palm Beach in Florida and Sag Harbor, on Long Island, New York.
A first, short-lived marriage to Margie Washichek ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Jane (nee Slagsvol), whom he married in 1967, and their children, Savannah, Delaney and Cameron.
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2023/sep/04/jimmy-buffett-obituary Jimmy Buffett obituary | Pop and rock