Singer, songwriter, author, and one-man genre James William Buffett was born on 25 December 1946 in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Buffett attended Auburn University before graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi with a degree in journalism in 1969. While in college he worked as a singer in New Orleans. After graduating he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue a career in the music business. He worked as a reporter for Billboard magazine before landing a recording contract with Barnaby Records. Buffett’s first album, Down to Earth, sold poorly in its 1970 release, and the master tapes for his second album, High Cumberland Jubilee, were “lost” but mysteriously reappeared as Buffett’s career began to soar in the mid-1970s.
A trip to Florida landed Jimmy Buffett in Key West, a city that proved an important catalyst for his musical development. On his next three albums, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean (1973), Living and Dying in 3/4 Time (1974), and A1A (1974), all released on the Dunhill label, Buffett introduced the tropical- and travel-oriented themes that captured the collective imagination of legions of Buffett fans, known affectionately as Parrot Heads. Songs such as “Tin Cup Chalice” and “Cuban Crime of Passion” still remain on Buffett’s touring set lists forty years after they were originally penned, a testament to both his songwriting and the loyalty of his fans. Of equal importance from this period are the still-popular reflective and poignant songs such as “He Went to Paris,” “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” and “Come Monday.”
Surprisingly, in a recording career spanning more than forty years, Buffett has had only one Top 10 hit as a solo artist: “Margaritaville” from the 1977 album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. Although his early country-oriented album for Barnaby faired poorly, Buffett has subsequently found significant success in that genre. A 2003 duet with Alan Jackson, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” gave Buffett his first No. 1 hit, while his 2004 album of country duets, License to Chill, gave him his first chart-topping album. The duet with Jackson held the No. 1 spot on the country charts for eight weeks and earned the Country Music Association’s 2003 Vocal Event of the Year award. In 2011 another duet, “Knee Deep,” with the Zac Brown Band, went to No. 1 on the country charts.
Buffett has described his music as being “90 percent autobiographical.” With clever song and book titles (and subtitles) such as “Fictional Facts and Factional Fictions,” “That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It,” and “Semi-True Story,” one wonders where the autobiography ends and the fiction begins. His song “Jamaica Mistaica,” for example, relates an incident in which the Negril, Jamaica, police mistakenly opened fire on Buffett’s seaplane. Buffett’s gift for storytelling has helped him make the transition into a successful author. Buffett has written two children’s books; a collection of short stories called Tales from Margaritaville; the novels Where Is Joe Merchant?, A Salty Piece of Land, and Swine Not? A Novel Pig Tale; and a memoir, A Pirate Looks at Fifty. Buffett is one of only a handful of authors to have had No. 1 New York Times best sellers in both fiction and nonfiction.
The tropical themes of Buffett’s music play a significant role in these works as well as in his two restaurant chains, Margaritaville Café and Cheeseburger in Paradise. In addition to establishments in Key West, Orlando, and Las Vegas, the singer has also offered up a tropical atmosphere to establishments in such unlikely places as Downers Grove, Illinois;, Middleton, Wisconsin; Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Fredericksburg, Virginia. International locations in Mexico (Cancun) and Jamaica (Montego Bay, Negril, and Ocho Rios) round out his club offerings. In 2016 Buffett opened Margaritaville Resort Biloxi.
To his fans, the essence of Jimmy Buffett is adventure, exotic locales, and a nonstop tropical beach party. This lifestyle, which he terms “island escapism,” proves a continual source of entertainment for his fans. Buffett has been known to stand on stage and tell fans that he is spending their money foolishly. They don’t seem to mind as long as the music and the stories keep coming.
- Donald Clarke, ed., The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1998)
- Brock Helander, The Rock Who’s Who (1996)
- Colin Larkin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1998)
- William Ruhlmann, Alabama Music Hall of Fame website, www.alamhof.org