Jimmy Buffett, Singer-Songwriter Who Turned ‘Margaritaville’ Hit into an Empire, Dies at 76

Singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, whose laid-back, good-humored, often tropically-themed brand of country-laced pop spawned a lucrative one-man business empire, died Friday. He was 76. 

Buffett’s death was confirmed through a statement on his official website: “Jimmy passed away peacefully on the night of September 1st surrounded by his family, friends, music and dogs. He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many.”

Buffett had been fighting Merkel cell skin cancer for four years, a statement revealed on his official website.

The statement added, “He continued to perform during treatment, playing his last show, a surprise appearance in Rhode Island, in early July.”

Over the course of a 50-year professional career, Buffett collected just one top-10 pop hit: “Margaritaville,” a marimba-laced, tequila-soaked paean to kicking back on the beach in the aftermath of a breakup, which rose to No. 8 on the national charts.

But Buffett’s boozy, punny, often marijuana-scented variety of tropical good-time music struck an abiding chord with an army of enthusiastic fans, who dubbed themselves “parrotheads” in reference to the colorful avian headgear they sported at the musician’s sold-out concerts.

That faithful audience made Buffett a consistent record seller, even absent major radio hits. Active in the studio for five decades, he released four platinum and eight gold studio albums; his 1985 hits compilation “Songs You Know by Heart” was certified for sales of 7 million copies, while the 1992 boxed set “Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads” rang up 4 million units.

From the early ‘90s on, after establishing himself on ABC and MCA Records, Buffett released his music entrepreneurially via his Margaritaville and Mailboat imprints.

Buffett’s highly palatable variety of party-hearty music translated into a host of products, making him one of the most successful and wealthiest performers in the world. In 2016, his personal worth was estimated at $500 million.

Writing about “Margaritaville” on the 40th anniversary of the song’s release in 2017, Forbes stated that it “morphed into a global lifestyle brand that currently has more than $4.8 billion in the development pipeline and sees $1.5 billion in annual system-wide sales. This year, Margaritaville Holdings announced a partnership with Minto Communities to develop Latitude Margaritaville, new active adult communities for those ‘55 and better,’ including the $1 billion Daytona Beach, Florida location and a second in Hilton Head, South Carolina.”

The business magazine noted that the performer’s licensed brands included apparel and footwear, retail stores, restaurants, resort destinations, gaming rooms, restaurants and even a Margaritaville-branded line of beer, LandShark Lager, which was projected to shift an estimated 3.6 million cases during its first year of availability.

Buffett found success as a writer: His novels “Tales from Margaritaville” and “Where is Joe Merchant?” and memoir “A Pirate Looks at Fifty” all reached No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. He was also active in film and TV work, writing soundtracks and appearing as a cameo player, most recently in Harmony Korine’s 2019 comedy “The Beach Bum.”

His lone shot at musical theater, an adaptation of Herman Wouk’s “Don’t Stop the Carnival” written with the novelist, was an out-of-town flop in 1997.

An unflagging stage performer, Buffett toured annually with his Coral Reefer Band and remained a top concert draw late in his career – in 2018, he appeared co-billed on a national tour with the Eagles. Endlessly reprised in concert, his songs like “A Pirate Looks at Forty” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise” were perennial sing-along favorites for a legion of parrotheads garbed in Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops.

Analyzing the enduring appeal of Buffett’s music, Christopher Ashley, director of the 2017 jukebox musical “Escape to Margaritaville,” said, “There is a celebratory bacchanalian quality but also a real strain of sadness in those songs. I think his songs have a real philosophical commitment to finding joy now, being as now is the only moment… Don’t postpone joy. Embrace it. Grab it. I think that’s profound and a great message to send in a world as joy-challenged as this one.”

James William Buffett was born on Dec. 25, 1946, in Pascagoula, Miss. and grew up in Mobile, Ala. He began playing the trombone in grade school. His grandfather was a sailing enthusiast and he took up the sport, which would play a thematic role in his music, as a youth.

He took up the guitar as a student at Auburn University, but ultimately graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. He briefly worked as a Nashville stringer for Billboard magazine.

Buffett began playing professionally in Nashville, and cut his folk-inflected debut “Down to Earth” for Barnaby Records in 1970. He toured with country/folk singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker on a 1971 trek to Key West, Fla, and soon relocated to the Keys, where he developed his easygoing beachside persona.

Signed to ABC/Dunhill, Buffett made his first mark on the country charts; his early sets “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean” (which spawned the early, slightly blue turntable hit “Why Don’t We Get Drunk”) and “Havana Daydreaming” reached No. 43 in 1973 and No. 21 in 1976 on the country album charts, respectively.

His breakthrough came with “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” the million-selling No. 12 pop collection that included his signature “Margaritaville.” The set was succeeded by the platinum “Son of a Son of a Sailor” (No 10, 1978) and the gold “Volcano” (No. 14, 1979). The 1978 live set “You Had to Be There” also went gold.

Through his ‘80s tenure at MCA, Buffett’s albums languished in the middle reaches of the U.S. pop charts, but he remained a top concert attraction. During that decade he began his deep move into personal branding and ancillary marketing, establishing the first Margaritaville retail store in Key West in 1987 and the first Margaritaville Café in 1987.

His fortunes rose in the ‘90s with the founding of his Margaritaville imprint, distributed successively by MCA and Island Records; four of his five studio albums during that decade – “Fruitcakes,” “Barometer Soup,” “Banana Wind” and “Beach House on the Moon” – reached the pop top 10 and went either gold or platinum. A pair of ‘90s concert shots, “Feeding Frenzy” (1990) and “Buffett Live: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays” (1999) were certified gold; the latter album was the first release on a new personal imprint, Mailboat Records.

After the turn of the millennium, marking his first appearances at the apex of the American pop charts, Buffett belatedly launched a pair of studio albums, “License to Chill” (2004) and “Take the Weather With You” (2006) to No. 1 on the pop album charts.

His biggest latter-day singles were collaborations that found success on the country singles charts. A duet with Alan Jackson, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” was No. 1 nationally in 2003, garnering a CMA Award as vocal event of the year. A 2004 version of Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’,” cut with Jackson, Clint Black, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, George Strait, rose to No. 8. In 2011, he reached No. 1 again alongside the Zac Brown Band on “Knee Deep.”

Buffett is survived by his second wife Jane, their two daughters, Sarah and Savannah, and son, Cameron. 

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