Peace Be With You: The Life and Times of Mr. Jimmy Buffett

I realize that this is a post about the late, great entertainer Jimmy Buffett, but I want to start out by talking for a minute about Taylor Swift. There are millions of ordinary, everyday people who adore Taylor Swift. They love her music. They love her as an entertainer. They value her opinions. They buy her merchandise in record numbers. They go to her shows (when they can manage to afford a ticket). They adore her. Simple as that. Taylor’s most devoted fans are known as “Swifties”. If Taylor opines about registering to vote in an upcoming election, Swifties register in record numbers. If Taylor muses about a new video dropping or song coming out, her Swifties cause computer servers to crash due to the avalanche of downloads that ensue the moment the song or video becomes available. Taylor Swift seems to have it all. She has good health. She is fit and attractive. She has no shortage of eligible, hot male suitors. She is a savvy business person. She writes hit songs as easily as most people change their socks each day. She has a net worth approaching one billion dollars!!! Yet, she often comes across as “the girl next door”. Throughout her career so far, Taylor Swift has marketed herself with aplomb. She is skilled in the art of creating and curating her brand. There is no one quite like her in the entertainment world today.

Now, let me introduce you to someone who inspired Taylor Swift to manage her image and career as she has been doing. That person was Jimmy Buffett. I could easily re-write my opening paragraph and simply change all of the “Taylors” for “Jimmys” and the essence of what I wrote would still ring true. Let me walk you through the life and times of one of the entertainment world’s most interesting, financially successful and beloved singers ever so you can see for yourself.

Jimmy Buffett’s career began before he ever left high school. He was always interested in music as a young man. He picked up a guitar while a teenager and developed enough skill that he was soon able to play for friends at parties and in the school cafeteria at lunch time. He sang nonsense songs that made his friends laugh. He also sang cover tunes, too. Whenever he sang, he did so with a boyish grin and a boatload of charm. Not surprisingly, his love of music soon overtook his attention to school work. This resulted in Buffett earning marks that barely met the entrance standards of local colleges. But college life beckoned, and soon Jimmy Buffett began to fine tune his ability to play music and get girls. Life became a party whenever he was around. Needless to say, Jimmy Buffett was a popular person on campus, even if he was never the most academically inclined. After graduating with a general diploma, Buffett headed off to Nashville and became good friends with singer/songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker (of “Mr. Bojangles” fame). The two lived together and played together. It was during this time that Jimmy Buffett began to develop his love of Country music that was to remain a constant part of his life and career. Soon enough, Buffett and Walker left Nashville and headed to New Orleans. Buffett found himself making a living as a busker in the French Quarter. From there, he began playing in small bars and clubs. After a short stint in the Big Easy, Buffett drove down the Florida panhandle and set up shop in the Florida Keys. Once there, he used his easy going personality to charm his way onto the crew of a yacht owned by the heir of the Rival Cooking Company (who make crockpots and other kitchen supplies and gadgets). In time, Buffett became First Mate. It was while sailing aboard this yacht and being exposed to such a decadent lifestyle that Jimmy Buffett came up with an idea.

Like many of us as we enter the early stages of adulthood, Jimmy Buffett had been drifting through his life. He knew that he enjoyed music and that he had the ability to charm a crowd, but he was never able to see a vision forward for where any of this might take him in life. But then, as he spent his days in the sunshine among the shiniest and richest of people he had ever seen, Buffett saw his path forward with clarity. If the first lesson of writing is to write about what you know, then, Buffett decided that he could write about those who live without a care and who sail the seas and for whom every day is filled with sunshine, love and fun times with friends. It was a decision that led to the creation of a personal brand or image that Buffett carried with him from that point until his death recently from skin cancer. Buffett sought to embody that carefree, indulgent lifestyle through song and through the carefully crafted persona that he adopted on stage. He began wearing flowery shirts, which he left unbuttoned several buttons down to reveal his tanned chest. His smile was pearl white. His hair, sandy beach blonde. For his songs, Buffett drew upon his own family history. He came from a long line of mariners and was well versed in the ways of the sea. He was First Mate on that yacht not just because of his charming personality. He actually was a sailor of some renown. Thus, Buffett began writing songs about sailing and the people who sailed ships. He wrote about smugglers and pirates. He wrote about how easy it was to get caught up in the lifestyle of places where the waters were warm, the drinks were cold and the women knew how to take care of a sailor. He wrote about the feel of the sun on his skin. He even wrote about the joy of finding a cheeseburger stand on a remote tropical island. Every song he created was built upon a foundation of the ordinary becoming extraordinary. It was always as if he, as the narrator, was just a regular guy who couldn’t believe his luck. If his dreams could come true, then so could those of the regular folks buying his records. Thus, he developed his brand and created a cult-like level of followers who came to be known as “Parrotheads”. The Parrothead lifestyle that Jimmy Buffett championed manifested itself in many forms, including drawing huge tourist crowds to the Florida Keys in search of that mythical place known as “Margaritaville”. Parrotheads have come to be known to hold conferences and retreats all dedicated to the music of Jimmy Buffett and the image he conveyed and the lifestyle he espoused. I have no doubt that these same festivals will continue long after his death as well. Even if the “Mayor of Margaritaville” has left his earthly marina, the ideal of living a carefree life in the sun is one that will linger forever as fuel for Parrotheads the world over.

However, one of the other big lessons from Jimmy Buffett’s life is that a person doesn’t need a wall of framed degrees to be considered a smart person. Jimmy Buffett was as clever as they came when it turned to making money from this image-laden world that he had created through music. Jimmy Buffett could sing and could write catchy songs that connected with audiences, but he was equally as skilled in business marketing. He knew that his fans enjoyed his songs about sailing and living in the sun. He knew that they would buy his records, come to his shows and visit the places he sang about. The next level to his marketing plan was to give those same fans a means of experiencing the lifestyle for themselves regardless of their bank balance. Thus, Buffett launched two restaurant chains: one called Margaritaville and the other known as Cheeseburgers in Paradise. As the demographic age of his Parrotheads began skewing older, Jimmy Buffett developed a series of retirement lifestyle communities, too. Between his musical endeavours, the restaurant chains and the retirement communities, Jimmy Buffett died with a net worth of over a billion dollars. Like Taylor Swift, Buffett came across as being the guy next door, someone who you could see yourself sharing beers with and talking with about the sea. Yet, he was the head of a multi-pronged, highly successful business corporation and had more than enough income to buy his own yacht (which he did with the proceeds of his most famous song, “Margaritaville”).

The craft of imagemaking is not one that just anyone can pull off. Taylor Swift is as successful as she is today in part because she studied success stories, such as those of people like Jimmy Buffett. There are lots of rich people who do not have the personality to inspire others like Buffett or Swift have. Both singer/ songwriters have tapped into the dreams of ordinary people and have used those dreams to create whole worlds or safe havens for their legions of followers. In death, much has been made of Jimmy Buffett’s discography, as well as his business acumen. But, the truth of it all is that Jimmy Buffett may just actually have been someone who managed to live up to his own hype off stage. He was happily married to his college sweetheart. He was friends with all manner of other musicians and actors and writers. He enjoyed excellent health right up until he developed cancer near the end of his life. He was generous with his money, donating to many environmental and political causes (he favoured Democrats, politically) and often headlining benefit concerts for free. Even as his final days drew near, Jimmy Buffett’s chest was tanned, his smile was pearl white and his hair, sandy beach blonde. He died as he had lived: surrounded by those who loved him, on a sunny day, near the water. You have more than earned your rest, Mr. Buffett. May peace be with you now and forever more.

The link to the official website for Jimmy Buffett can be found here. ***If you click on the link, you will find a lovely letter to his fans that was written by his wife, Jane. She includes several details about his life and times that I opted not to include for the sake of brevity. Her letter is well worth a few moments of your time to read. Their love is obvious and shines through like the rays of the sun.

The link to the video for the song “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett can be found here. ***Lyrics version can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Margaritaville chain can be found here.

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