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A laughing Jimmy Buffett, wearing a baseball cap and facing the camera.
Jimmy Buffett.

Fair Winds and Following Seas to You, Jimmy Buffett

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Jimmy Buffett, whose “Margaritaville” was inducted into the National Recording Registry this year, died yesterday at age 76. He was surrounded by his family, friends and his beloved dogs, his family announced on social media. There was no mention of the cause.

It was a shock to his millions of fans across the globe, as the vibrant, still-touring Buffett was not publicly known to be ill. He had performed in concert as recently as May.

I interviewed him in late March for the NRR honors. The man was both the picture of health and tickled by the recognition, as his laid-back songs were not the type that tended to get awards, he chuckled.

So he happily joined us via a streaming platform and told the familiar story of how he wrote the hit that changed the last four decades of his life and helped make him one of the wealthiest entertainers of his generation.

It was the early 1970s and he was day drinking in Austin, Texas, after a rough night out with his friends Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. He ordered a margarita – on the rocks with salt – and it hit the spot.

“I started writing it right there on a napkin like you hear about,” he said. A friend took him to the airport for his flight back to Miami, from which he’d shuffle a rental car back down to Key West for a friend who was in that business. (He also needed the free transportation.) A traffic jam ensued on the Seven Mile Bridge and, stuck for an hour or so, he finished the song.

“I got to Key West and I was working in a little club on Duval Street called Crazy Ophelia’s. And I went in and I had to work that night and I played the song. People liked it! I went, ‘Wow, this is pretty good.’ And you know, it was fresh, it was probably, you know, six hours old …. It was maybe even four years before it got recorded (in 1977). It was just part of my repertoire that people liked as I was going around as a performer.”

He was very familiar with the Library, having performed here in September 2008 when his friend Herman Wouk was honored with the Library’s first Lifetime Achievement Award for the Writing of Fiction (today known as the Prize for American Fiction). In one of those “only at the Library” moments that demonstrate the sweep of the place, Buffett spoke, and then sang, just before Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke and read from Wouk’s writing. (Imagine that advertising card: “Tonight Only! Herman Wouk! Jimmy Buffett! Ruth Bader Ginsburg!”)

Buffett is shown while steering a sailboat, wearing a hat, jacket and sunglasses, looking to his right, the sea behind him.
The announcement of Buffett’s passing. Image from Buffett’s website.

This March, ours was a simple, half-hour interview. He wore a baseball cap, an upbeat smile and a camo tee shirt. It came with a sweet nostalgic undertone, at least for me.

How I had idolized this man when I was a teenager! How I had memorized every line of every song!

Buffett was nearly two decades older but, like me, grew up in Mississippi, him down there on the Gulf Coast. I was a seventh generation Mississippian, living outside a small town in the middle of the state. I was very much into music and very much into not living the rest of my life outside a small town in the middle of Mississippi.

And there he was! A Mississippi kid, living the dream in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean! Writing romanticized, chilled-out songs about the seas, the islands, roaming the planet, another life in another world.

I must stress this was before “Margaritaville,” before he was on the cover of Rolling Stone, before Parrotheads, before the restaurants and “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” I was “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean.” I was “A1A.” I even wrote to rare record shops, getting a copy of his first album, “Down to Earth.”

After college, I took a job at a newspaper on the east coast of Florida, right by the ocean, in no small part because my hero, Jimmy Buffett, had gone to Florida, too. I eventually became a foreign correspondent and roamed the planet, my wanderlust having been kindled by listening to Buffett as a teen.

And so here we were this March, both of us now old guys.

We played back home for a minute or two. Because it’s a very small state it turned out we had mutual friends. He said that when in Washington he often ate at the Bethesda Crab House. It’s a mile from where I live, we eat there as well, and I said I’d keep a lookout for him. The man is worth some $600 million, thanks to his ceaseless touring and ever-expanding merchandising of “Margaritaville,” but you wouldn’t have known it that day. We might as well have been two Magnolia State refugees who happened to bump into one another on adjacent bar stools at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West.

He was working on a new album about his time as a busker in New Orleans and urged me to buy it when it came out. He was planning a concert in the D.C. area and told me to come on out and introduce myself. It had the gist of sincerity to it, not just a “let’s have lunch” pleasantry that people say but of course don’t actually mean. (And, even if it was, it was kind of him to say so.)

So, like the rest of you, I was stunned and saddened this morning when I heard the news. The cover of the “Changes in Latitude” album popped up before my mind’s eye. “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season” played in my head, his soft tenor opening the lyrics:

Squalls out on the Gulf Stream

Big storm’s coming soon

Passed out in my hammock

And God, I slept till way past noon

Fair winds and following seas to you, Jimmy Buffett.

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Comments (13)

  1. This one stings more than most. I was hoping we would at least have him until 86 like his character in “He Went to Paris”. Whether on stage or being interviewed, I always felt like “that guy is my friend”. I think that was part of his appeal. Excellent songwriter, magnificent storyteller (as so many southerners are).

  2. Fond Aloha and Mahalo nui

  3. A Big Thank you

  4. Like you, I became a fan early (though not quite as soon as you). Some of Jimmy’s music was familiar but I started buying his albums (then tapes, then CDs) shortly after my college roommates and I began working out to the Jane Fonda audiotape, doing glute work to “Changes in Latitudes.”

    From there, I spent a fair amount of money (which I did NOT have to spare) on albums as I searched for “The Weather Is Here.” By the time I found the song, I was a rabid fan who for many years made an annual parrothead pilgrimage to Blossom Music Center here in Ohio to hear Jimmy.

    I grew older, became an adult, started a family, and still, one or more friends and I continued our yearly tradition. But as more time slipped away, my annual concert became a thing of the past.

    Earlier this summer, I thought “I’m retired now. I need to make time to see Jimmy next summer.”

    Alas, I reached that conclusion too late. I was shocked, as I suspect were many others, when I woke this morning to the news, having been unaware he was ill.

    Jimmy, it seems to me, managed to live life on his own terms, a feat not easily accomplished. Even more incredible, in the process of doing so, he provided so much joy — and fun! — to so many, all of us living in a world that can be extremely un-fun.

    Summers will be a little less sunny knowing he’s no longer around to sing all us parrotheads happy.

    And yet, his many years of playing and recording has left behind a body of work we can turn to for solace, and we must be grateful for that.

    “… he’s somewhere on the ocean now
    A place he outta be
    With one hand on the starboard rail
    He’s wavin’ back at me.”

  5. He could change your attitude from depressed to ecstatic just by listening to his music and lyrics. I was so fortunate to see him in Key West February this year at Coffee Butler Amphitheater. And yes, it was magical! It brings tears to my eyes now just remembering the fun and happiness of Jimmy, the band and all the Parrotheads. He was genuine and never seemed to let his fortune affect his ego.

  6. Thank you for this tribute and remembrance. His music accompanied happy times in my life from college to present. His concerts were legend – and such fun. I would have loved to have seen Jimmy Buffett with Wouk and RBG together. What a night.

    Some of it’s magic and some of it’s tragic
    But I had a good life all the way
    “He Went to Paris” 1973

    Fins up.

  7. Thanks for sharing this. I’m pleased to hear he enjoyed this unexpected honor – I would’ve loved to see those three wildly diverse personalities together, I have such admiration for all of them! I hope he knew how much he was loved, how happy he made so many people. I treasure the memories of the times I saw him live, and like so many, I’m grieving, sad I won’t get to go again. Playing his albums on repeat all weekend….

  8. 🌹 🌹🌹

  9. Saw Jimmy in concert in 1977. Here’s to the sunny slopes of long ago, Jimmy Buffett. Rest easy, old friend.

  10. When Jimmy and the Reefers played the Euphoria Tavern in Portland, OR I managed to fill the front row, both sets with my “new Buffet fans” gang of friends. Between sets he accepted my offer of a beer or two. We talked music, travel, tennis and after a short trip to the parking lot, life in general. He was completely unassuming and an all around kick! Several years and much fame later my 6 yr old son, while waiting in line with his mom to have a couple of Jimmy’s books signed, to his mothers chagrin broke ranks, ran up to Jimmy and announced that we had a Buffet party every summer. Mom was beside herself but Jimmy just waved and pulled the boy up on his lap and signed books until it was her turn. He took extra time to hear the stories and talk to the boy and even remembered that beer. He was still that unassuming regular guy. I’ve been lucky to travel and wherever I’ve ended up, a Buffett T-shirt has always provided a beer and new friends.
    He was that rare performer that reached around the entire planet blessing all with his joy and island attitude. “Life is just a tire swing”
    He will be missed but always with us.

  11. I simply cannot fathom a world without Jimmy Buffet. He brought so much joy and goodness and wonderful music to our planet. I’m truly heartbroken at this news yesterday. I think everyone felt they had a friend in Jimmy Buffett. Gone at 76 and way too young, I feel he – and we – got robbed. Somehow I thought he’d live forever. He will be soooo missed. 💔🎶 May there be beautiful waters and blue skies in heaven. Fins up forever! 🌊

  12. Just sometimes nice guys finish first. Jimmy was one nice guy. Had tickets to see him for a once in a lifetime show but COVID intervened. Nevertheless, his tunes are a lasting legacy. Thank you Jimmy!

  13. Jimmy wrote the soundtrack of my life. Since 1974 we’ve been a four generation Parrothead family. We are not okay. But he left us with some words of wisdom for when we are confused and disoriented…. Bubbles Up, Jimmy. Until we meet again!

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