Jimmy Buffett, the mega-selling musician and entrepreneur whose songs have become cornerstones of popular culture, died yesterday of unspecified causes at the age of 76.
The news was announced today on Buffett’s official website. “Jimmy passed away peacefully on the night of September 1st surrounded by his family, friends, music and dogs,” read the statement. “He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many.”
Born on Christmas Day 1946 in Pascagoula, Miss., Buffett spent his early years in Alabama and briefly attended Auburn University before transferring to and graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1969. Around that time, he moved to Nashville to pursue a music career. He released his folk-inflected debut album, Down to Earth, on the now-defunct Barnaby Records in 1970. It failed to crack the Billboard charts and bore little resemblance stylistically to his later work.
In the early ’70s, Buffett developed a passion for busking and would regularly perform on the street for tourists in New Orleans’ French Quarter. In November 1971, he went to Key West, Fla., on a busking trip with country singer Jerry Jeff Walker, of “Mr. Bojangles” fame. Buffett put down roots in the island town and began developing the beach-bum persona for which he became known.
Buffett released his second album, 1973’s A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, on ABC Records. It was a modest success, reaching No. 43 on Billboard‘s country chart. It also showed the beginnings of Buffett’s signature “Gulf and Western” sound: a languid, feel-good combination of country, pop, rock, folk and Caribbean music. He would continue to develop the sound over his next several albums, released in quick succession: 1974’s Living and Dying in 3/4 Time and A1A, 1975’s Rancho Deluxe soundtrack and 1976’s Havana Daydreamin’.
All of those records were teeing Buffett up for his commercial breakthrough, 1977’s Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. The LP reached No. 2 on the country chart and No. 12 on the Billboard 200, went platinum and contained his signature song, “Margaritaville.” The boozy, laid-back anthem soared to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spawned dozens of commercial ventures, including the Margaritaville restaurant chain, Radio Margaritaville, numerous Margaritaville Resort properties, Margaritaville tequila, men’s and women’s apparel, chicken wings, beach furniture and Buffett’s own Margaritaville Records.
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Buffett’s next album, 1978’s Son of a Son of a Sailor, was another Top 10, platinum-selling success that contained another one of his signature songs, “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Even as his album sales languished in the ’80s, Buffett remained a touring juggernaut, packing amphitheaters, arenas and stadiums. During that time, he also minted a loving nickname for his dedicated fans: “Parrotheads.”
“Timothy B. Schmidt [bassist for the Eagles] was in the band, and we were playing a venue outside of Cincinnati called King’s Island,” Buffett explained. “People had already started wearing Hawaiian shirts to our shows, but we looked out at this Cincinnati crowd, and they were glaringly brilliant to the point where it got our attention immediately. I said ‘Look at that!’ Then Schmidt says to me, ‘They look like Deadheads in tropical suits. They’re like Parrot Heads!’ he yelled to me in the middle of a song. So I immediately took the term and threw it over the microphone — the people identified themselves with the term from the get-go.”
Buffett enjoyed a chart boost in the ’90s with a series of Top 10 albums that earned gold and platinum certifications, including 1994’s Fruitcakes (No. 5) and Banana Wind (No. 4). He scored his biggest chart hit to date in 2003 when he teamed up with Alan Jackson for “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” which became a No. 1 country hit and won the 2003 Country Music Association Award for Vocal Event of the Year. Buffett’s next album, 2004’s License to Chill, debuted atop the Billboard 200, becoming his first and only chart-topper. Its successor, 2006’s Take the Weather With You, reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on the country chart as well.
As he continued packing stadiums on a yearly basis, Buffett also made successful forays into book writing. He penned three New York Times Best Sellers — 1989’s Tales From Margaritaville, 1992’s Where Is Joe Merchant? and 1998’s A Pirate Looks at Fifty — and co-authored two children’s books, 1988’s The Jolly Mon and 1991’s Trouble Dolls, with his daughter Savannah Jane Buffett. He also made several film cameos over the years, appearing in Repo Man, Hook, Cobb, Hoot, Congo and more. The singer’s professional portfolio even included real estate (Latitude Margaritaville, a $1 billion retirement village in Daytona Beach, Fla.) and cannabis (the Coral Reefer cannabis line, named after Buffett’s traveling band).
Cumulatively, all of these ventures reflect an artist who loved his work, sucked the marrow out of life and never took his good fortune for granted. As Buffett sang on 1981’s “Growing Older But Not Up”: “Let those winds of time blow over my head / I’d rather die while I’m livin’ than live while I’m dead.”
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