Singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett (1946- ) spent his early formative years in Mobile, Alabama, and briefly attended Auburn University. His childhood experiences growing up on Alabama's Gulf Coast helped shape his world view and the persistent themes in his artistic output. He later moved to Key West, Florida, where he became an author, entrepreneur and icon of popular culture. His fans worldwide call themselves "Parrotheads" in homage to the Caribbean culture that exemplifies Buffett's life and is celebrated in his music.
James William Buffett was born on December 25, 1946, in Pascagoula, Mississippi, the child of James Delaney "J. D." Buffett Jr. and Mary Loraine Peets Buffett. J. D. served as a flight mechanic in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps in World War II and moved the family to Mobile soon after to work for Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company. Buffett's parents wanted their son to be either a Jesuit priest or a naval officer and sent him to parochial schools. He was a Boy Scout and altar boy in St. Ignatius Parish in Mobile and graduated in 1964 from McGill Institute (now McGill-Toolen Catholic High School), an all-male college preparatory school. His youthful interests in fishing, boating, swimming and surfing along the Gulf Coast are passions that he maintained as an adult and that influenced many of his creative endeavors.
Buffett entered Auburn as a freshman in 1965 and pledged the social fraternity Sigma Pi. He learned guitar from another pledge, Johnny Youngblood, because he saw that it brought Youngblood success in meeting coeds. Buffett was unable to balance his newfound interests in music and girls with his college classes and failed out of Auburn in April 1966. To avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, he enrolled the following September at Pearl River Junior College in Poplarville, Mississippi.
Buffett turned to music to pay his college expenses, working first as a street singer on weekends in New Orleans and then at engagements along the Gulf Coast with friends Doug Duncan and Susan Pitman in a band called The Upstairs Alliance. Buffett's real education came from living in the hippie counterculture of the late-1960s French Quarter in New Orleans. Nevertheless, Buffett maintained his grades and transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg to complete a bachelor's degree in history in 1969. Anticipating the draft, he applied for Officer Candidate School, but received a medical exemption when a Navy physical diagnosed him with a peptic ulcer. Freed from military service, Buffett pursued a career as a solo act and proposed marriage to his girlfriend, Margie Washichek. In 1969 the couple wed in St. Joseph's Chapel on the campus of Spring Hill College in Mobile.
Buffett's talent lay in connecting with an audience, and he had an intensely loyal fan base from his earliest performances in Mobile at The Admiral's Club. Also in Mobile Buffett composed and recorded songs in a studio owned by songwriter Milton Brown. Brown introduced Buffett to executives at Billboard magazine, based in Nashville, Tennessee, which took him on as a reporter. It would be Buffett's first and only nine-to-five job. Barnaby Records then signed him to a recording contract, requiring him to give up the Billboard job after his 1970 album Down to Earth appeared. The record sold less than 400 copies. Barnaby officials then misplaced his master tape for a second album to be called High Cumberland Jubilee. These financial disappointments and his inability to get club dates in Nashville stressed his marriage. In 1971 Buffett divorced his wife and headed for Key West, Florida. There he worked on a fishing boat, pursued his solo career on the road and developed the beach-bum persona for which he would become famous. A mutual friend introduced Buffett to Jane Slagsvol in Key West in 1972, and the two were married on August 27, 1977.
In 1973 Buffett signed with ABC-Dunhill Records and recorded a second debut album, A White Sports Coat and a Pink Crustacean, which was released in 1973. The subsequent Living and Dying in ¾ Time (1974) contained Buffett's first hit single, "Come Monday." However, Buffett struggled to find a niche in the music industry because his songs could not be easily categorized. He formed the Coral Reefer Band in 1975, and their album Changes in Latitudes (1977)—featuring Buffett's most popular song, "Margaritaville"—reached number eight on Billboard's charts.
In the late 1980s Buffett branched into entrepreneurship. He opened the first of several Margaritaville restaurants in Key West in 1987. In 1989 he invested in the Ft. Myers Miracles, a minor league baseball team, with actor and comedian Bill Murray. In 1998 he launched Radio Margaritaville, available for subscription on Sirius satellite radio. In 2000 Outback Restaurants paid Buffett $1 million for the rights to name a chain of restaurants Cheeseburger in Paradise, after the title of a hit song from his Son of a Son of a Sailor (1978).
Buffett also took up writing, publishing Tales from Margaritaville, a collection of short stories, in 1989. His 1992 mystery novel, Where Is Joe Merchant?, spent months on The New York Times best-seller list for fiction. He also co-authored the children's books Jolly Mon (1988) and Trouble Dolls (1991) with his daughter Savannah Jane and illustrator Lambert Davis. His autobiographical A Pirate Looks at Fifty (1998) topped the New York Times non-fiction list right after its release, and his novel A Salty Piece of Land (2004) also was a best-seller.
A flight enthusiast, Buffett has owned and flown a number of seaplanes. On August 25, 1994, Buffett survived the crash of his seaplane, Lady of the Waters, in Madeket Harbor, Nantucket. On January 16, 1996, Jamaican police mistook his plane for a drug-smuggling plane and shot at him and fellow passenger Bono, singer for Irish rock group U2. Buffett transformed the incident into "Jamaica Mistaica," a song on his Banana Wind (1996) album.
Buffett remains popular in the twenty-first century. His collaboration with country music star Alan Jackson on the hit single "It's Five O'clock Somewhere" (2003) earned the Country Music Award for Vocal Event of 2003, a Grammy nomination for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) Song of the Year for 2004. Buffett's album License to Chill (2004) debuted at number one on the popular music charts the week it was released, another first for Buffett. He received his second Grammy nomination for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals with his song, "Hey Good Looking" from the License to Chill album. Buffett produced, acted in, and created the soundtrack for the film Hoot, based on the children's book and released in May 2006. Over his recording career, Buffett has released more than 40 albums, most of which have reached gold, platinum, or multiplatinum status.
Buffett continues to tour, regularly performing benefit concerts for survivors of hurricanes and other disasters, as well
as concerts to support political campaigns. He is also a recognized environmentalist, especially in efforts to save the manatee
and their habitats in the Florida Everglades. Buffett and his wife Jane have three children.
Buffett, Jimmy. A Pirate Looks at Fifty. New York: Random House, 1998.
———. A Salty Piece of Land. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2004.
———. Tales from Margaritaville: Fictional Facts and Factual Fictions. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1989.
Charles Stephen Padgett
Published July 13, 2007
Last updated August 14, 2013