Jimmy Buffett, the easygoing “Margaritaville” singer/songwriter who transformed his no-worries, beachy lifestyle into a five-decade endless road trip as a performer and entrepreneur, has died at age 76. The news, announced on his website and social media accounts, follows Buffett’s May cancelation of a show in South Carolina to get treatment for an undisclosed illness.
“Jimmy passed away on the night of September 1st surrounded by his family, friends, music and dogs,” the early Saturday morning (Sept. 2) post reads. “He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many.”
Renowned for his wildly enthusiastic audiences — known as “Parrotheads” — Buffett parlayed his cheeky, rum-soaked songs about pirates (“A Pirate Looks at Forty”), boozy beach bums (“It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere”), captains and sand-caked rogues (“The Captain and the Kid”) into a permanent vacation journey where every port of call was loaded with fruity drinks, colorful summer-themed outfits and precisely no cares in the world.
With a laconic songwriting style that leaned into his guy-you-wanna-have-six-beers-with persona (and vice versa), Buffett penned such memorable lines as “I took off for a weekend last month just to try and recall the whole year,” from 1977’s “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitude” single. The primary thrust of his career could be summed up by the title of his 1992 box set: Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads.
In addition to his 13 Billboard Hot 100 charting singles — including seven top 40 hits and one top 10 — as well as 40 entries on the Billboard 200 album chart, Buffett’s no-worries mien belied a killer business instinct that parlayed the popularity of his island-spiked bar band folk rock anthems into a billion-dollar personal fortune. His sprawling ancillary business org chart included a series of Margaritaville and LandShark Bar & Grill restaurants across the U.S., as well as licensing agreements for Margaritaville tequila, shoes, cruises, pre-packaged food items and an Atlantic City casino.
There were also his personal Margaritaville and Mailboard Records imprints, a trio of charitable organizations that funded personal growth through music and manatee rescue, as well as a pair of musicals (1997’s Don’t Stop the Carnival and 2017’s Escape to Margaritaville), his signature LandShark lager beer and three Latitude Margaritaville retirement communities in Daytona Beach, Hilton Head and Watersound, FL.
Born James William Buffett on Christmas Day 1946 in Pascagoula, MS, and raised in Mobile, Alabama, the singer was one of three children born to James Delaney Buffett Jr. and Mary Loraine (Peets), who both worked for the Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding company. He grew up listening to his grandfather steamship captain J.D. Buffett’s tales of high seas adventure, to whom he paid homage in “Son of a Son of a Sailor.” The latter features the memorable, salt-caked lines, “I’m just a son of a son, son of a son/ Son of a son of a sailor/ The sea’s in my veins, my tradition remains/ I’m just glad I don’t live in a trailer.”
Inspired by the attention a college fraternity brother earned from women for playing guitar, Buffett began his first band and quickly graduated from street busking to playing six nights a week at Bourbon Street clubs in New Orleans and then working as a correspondent for Billboard magazine in Nashville from 1969-1970; he was the reporter who broke the news that legendary bluegrass duo Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs were breaking up in 1969.
He released his debut album, the country-leaning folk collection Down to Earth, in 1970, followed by 1973’s A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, which featured the fan-favorite novelty song “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw),” as well as “He Went to Paris” and “Grapefruit Juicy Fruit.” The singer finally hit the top 40 with the No. 30 Hot 100 swaying single “Come Monday” from his third album, Living and Dying in 3/4 Time which contained another live staple, “Pencil Thin Mustache.”
The release of his sixth album, Havana Daydreamin’, in 1976, marked Buffett’s highest Billboard 200 album chart placement to date — at No. 65 — but it was the next year’s Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes that proved to be his best-selling breakthrough album thanks to the “Margaritaville” single. The song features a kind of shorthand for the Buffett way of life (and the origins of his fans’ nickname) courtesy of the sand-packed first verse, “Nibblin’ on sponge cake/ Watchin’ the sun bake/ All of you Parrotheads covered with oil,” which flip-flops into the iconic chorus: “Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville/ Searchin’ for my long lost shaker of salt.” That song, which spent 22 weeks on the singles chart, topped out at No. 8 on the Hot 100 in July 1977, marking Buffett’s highest charting career single.
His hot streak continued on 1978’s Son of a Son of a Sailor, which featured another iconic laid-back hit, “Cheeseburger in Paradise” (No. 32 on the Hot 100), as well as “Livingston Saturday Night” (No. 52) and “Mañana” (No. 84). In all, Buffett released 29 studio albums and 14 live albums over his career, including his final studio collection, 2020’s fan-curated B-sides, Songs You Don’t Know By Heart; at press time Buffett had been teased his 30th studio album, Equal Strain on All Parts, though a release date had not yet been set.
Buffett’s career peak on the Billboard 200 album chart came in 2004 when License to Chill hit No. 1, besting his previous career high on the album tally, 1996’s Banana Wind (No. 4); his 2020 collection, Life on the Flip Side topped out at No. 2. The singer also crossed over onto the country charts with 20 songs, including 2003’s ACM-winning No. 1 Alan Jackson duet “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” as well as 2011’s No. 1 hit “Knee Deep” with the Zac Brown Band and 2004’s “Hey Good Lookin’,” a Hank Williams cover that hit No. 8 with some help from Clint Black, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and George Strait. In addition, Buffett landed 15 entries on the Adult Contemporary charts — including a No. 1 with Margaritaville in 1977 and 17 entires on the top country albums chart, with eight top 10s and a No. 1 with License to Chill.
While Buffett’s album and single sales later waned, he remained a huge live draw, playing an endless series of tours with his beloved Coral Reefer Band to his legion of colorfully dressed fans, whose devotion rivaled that of the Grateful Dead’s indefatigable “Deadhead” followers. He also launched the Radio Margaritaville channel on SiriusXM and spun off a series of best-selling books, including the short story collection Tales From Margaritaville (1989), his first fiction novel, Where Is Joe Merchant? (1992), the 1998 memoir A Pirate Looks at Fifty and the novels A Salty Piece of Land (2004) and Swine Not? A Novel Pig Tale.
According to the New York Times, he was one of only six writers — along with Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and William Styron — to top both the Times’ fiction and nonfiction best-seller lists. Buffett also dipped his toes into two children’s books written with his daughter, Savannah Jane, The Jolly Mon (1988) and Trouble Dolls (1991).
Over the years, Buffett also contributed original songs to a number of movies, including Summer Rental, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Urban Cowboy, Jurassic World and FernGully, as well as filming cameos for Repo Man, Hook, Congo and Rancho Deluxe.