Jimmy Buffett’s impact on Gulf Coast culture is part of his legacy
Mobile’s famous son spent quality time seeking out fun on Pleasure Island
By Fran Thompson
I’ve been connected to Jimmy Buffett ever since I played rugby for the Erie All-Blacks in the 1970’s. That was 1100 miles and a lifetime ago.
As soon as the Erie boys – local mill honkeys with a smattering of college kids – heard that people were eating Cheeseburgers in Paradise, we learned the song. We tweaked one of the verses to “Two for a dollar. That’s 50 cents twice.’’ And from Pittsburgh to Youngstown, we loudly and proudly let everyone within earshot know how we liked ours. I’ve carried that song in my rugby party songbook from Fort Lauderdale to Seattle and many places in between.
My rugby connection with Buffett went major league in 1983 when I moved east from NOLA and hooked up with the Pensacola Aviators, a side that included a core group of white jacket wearing players at every post match party (A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean). Why wouldn’t we? Our post match parties were on Pensacola Beach.
My publishing highmark came early. Buffett wrote us a letter to the editor in response to a solid story Bob Patroni wrote about him as a preview to Buffett’s July 1990 concert at Ladd Memorial Stadium (with Little Feat and Clint Black).
Patroni asked at the end of his essay if Jimmy ever paid back the mini-mart in reference to The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, a song about a band trip from Hattiesburg to New Orleans. Buffett answered that he did not. (I saw an interview in which he said he eventually did.)
I’ve published through hurricanes and an oil spill, and that letter from Buffett remains my publishing hallmark, although Jimmy posting a picture of him reading my newspaper is close.
Buffett has had a profound influence on me, my newspaper, my community, my friends, my social life, on how I see the world. He touched millions of us that way.
Yet he always retained the essence of what it means to be from Lower Alabama. To have New Orleans, Mobile Mardi Gras, parochial schools, the Gulf and good gumbo be part of your culture. Celebrating all that with Buffett as a soundtrack is part of that culture.
Buffett passed away peacefully surrounded by family, friends, music and dogs on Sept. 1 after fighting Merkel Cell Skin Cancer for four years. He was 76, and his last gig was this past July in Rhode Island (Page 13).
“Growing old is not for sissies, I promise you,” Buffett wrote on his website after cancelling stops on his final tour.
“He lived his life like a song ‘til the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many,” Buffett’s family posted when he died.
“Jimmy didn’t have any illusions about who he was and what he was doing. He made fun of himself and he made fun of the institution of celebrity,’’ his friend James Taylor said.
Buffett projected inclusiveness, generosity and adventure. He made it clear to all around him that fun is fair. And he became an international musical icon while doing so.
Yet when at home, he was one of us. He grew up with the same perfect sand between his toes.
I’ve seen Buffett at a famous theater in Paris, La Cigale, and even that was through a local connection. Gulf Shores’ trop rock ace Brent Burns was invited to visit with Jimmy before the show at that Parrot Head mecca. My press pass got me only as far as the dressing room door.
And I was there the next afternoon when Brent played what he called a bucket list gig at a bistro on the Siene River. Of course, Brent’s set included Livin’ The Life (Jimmy Buffett Only Wrote About).
I saw Buffett play on an aircraft carrier flight deck inside the Naval Air Museum onboard NAS Pensacola. He was very happy to be there playing songs with Mac McAnally beneath beautifully restored airplanes.
I saw Buffett the only time he ever rocked his sister’s restaurant in Gulf Shores. It was at the Freddie & The Fishsticks show on the day that Hurricane Alex forced postponement of his scheduled free BP sponsored concert on Gulf Shores Public Beach.
“I guess I psuedo opened for Jimmy Buffett,’’ said another Mobile raised musician, Wes Loper, who played the inside stage before Freddy And The Fishsticks took the stage outside at Lulu’s.
Loper, who also lent Buffett his guitar to play for his mother at LuLu’s Weeks Bay years earlier, said the two also shared a Grammy winning producer, Alan Schulman.
Loper sat at a dinner table with Buffett at a boat show in West Palm Beach, and when in Nashville, he, Eric Erdmann and the Ugli Stick hit the hotel bar with all the Coral Reefers.
“Alan got me a couple songs in the rotation at Radio Margaritaville and that helped launch me to a lot more listeners,’’ Loper said.
“I never considered myself a trop rocker. But I like to keep it fun and I sing about life on the water. I don’t know anything that I could say about Jimmy that has not already been said or that he has not already written in his own songs.”
That free Gulf Shores’ show finally went off 11 days after Buffett played at LuLu’s. Four days after the show, after an average of 1.5 million gallons of oil were released into the ocean for 87 consecutive days, BP succesfully capped its Deepwater Horizon well.
Johnny Fisher was in the car with Lucy Buffett when her brother called and said he wanted to play a free concert at the beach.
Fisher, LuLu’s GM at the time, has a good story about how Lucy’s “One Love – One Ocean” fundraising t-shirt ended up on Buffett’s back on stage that day.
“I told Lucy she needs to get Jimmy to wear a One Ocean t-shirt on stage, but she said she didn’t like telling Jimmy what to do and was super reluctant to ask him,’’ Fisher said.
“So, I called up Jimmy’s right hand man Mike (Ramos) and asked what kind of shirts Jimmy wears on stage. He said the Gap or Old Navy. So, I got about 10 shirts, had them printed up with the One Ocean screen and asked Mike to put them in Jimmy’s room.’’
Fisher was at soundcheck before the beach concert when Buffett came out in a yellow One Ocean t-shirt.
“Jimmy said over the mic, ‘be careful what you wish for, Johnny.’ For awhile, I thought he was talking about the big show and some of the craziness that went on putting it together,’’ Fisher said.
“But now I really think he was talking about the One Love t-shirt. The thing is, he was wearing a yellow shirt, and I did not bring him a yellow shirt.’’
Buffett did not wear Gap or Old Navy t-shirts on stage. His seamstress sewed the One Ocean screen onto one of his custom shirts. And it worked.
Fisher said LuLu’s had to hire five employees to answer phones and process t-shirt sales after that concert.
That same custom One Ocean t-shirt is now on display in a shadow box at LuLu’s along with some local sand and an oil spill tar ball.
Will Kimbrough, a fellow Mobilian, was playing guitar in Buffett’s band that day.
He and Buffett co-wrote Bubbles Up, one of three recently released songs that will be included on a posthumous album, Equal Strain On All Parts, that will be released Nov. 3. In all, Buffett has cut 22 of Kimbrough’s songs.
“Jimmy and I agreed that the slide guitar solo should pay tribute to Duane Allman, and that’s who I was channeling on my beat up old Gibson in the studio that day,’’ Kimbrough posted. “God bless Jimmy Buffett.’’
The upcoming album will mark the eighth consecutive time Buffett has included at least one Kimbrough cut on an album. Those songs include Nobody from Nowhere, Piece of Work, Wings and Soulfully.
“Will is a wonderful throwback to the now by-gone era of singer, songwriter, musician and entertainer,” said Buffett about his writing mate. “On stage, he can charm a crowd whether fronting a band, or playing solo. That is why you see his songs on my albums and his face on our stage.”
Mobilians Kimbrough, Buffett and Jimmy Hall all take pride in the fact that they grew up in The Port City.
“My Mobile brother. Gone too soon,’’ the still rockin’ Hall recently posted.
My friends have seen Buffett play at LuLu’s on Weeks Bay, the Flora-Bama and Judge Roy Beans in Daphne.
Johnny Barbato, another musician from Mobile (Davidson), saw him play with 25 other people one night and 15,000 people a short time later.
Barbato was rocking Waylon, Willie and Jerry Jeff songs with fellow Port City bluesmen David Moody, Lou Wamble, JW Slyde and Wick Larson when he started playing at LuLu’s on Weeks Bay, Lucy’s Buffett’s first location.
He said around that time Lucy invited him to a birthday party for their mother at a home on Mobile Bay that included a set of songs from Jimmy.
“There were about 25 people there, and I’m one of maybe five who were not family,’’ Barbato said. “I’m just trying to stay out of the way. But when Buffett started playing, it was like there was a halo over his head. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen. And I saw it clear as day.
“He was using some kind of rented 12’s (speakers) and he had no monitor. It just blew my mind. It grabbed me so much that I went to his concert a few weeks later in Biloxi and he did the same thing to 20,000 people that he did to 20. The dude was that special. There are very few people in the world that can sit down and just be themselves like that.
“Besides that, he is a poster child for musicians not to quit on themselves,’’ Barbato added. “If you read Willie Nelson’s book on how to make it in the business, he says on page one that you have to conquer your home town. Buffett didn’t conquer his hometown, he conquered Key West, and that was after plenty of failure.’’
Patrick Quinn, a fellow McGill grad and musician, remembers as a youngster seeing Buffett play at a private party in Point Clear with the band Taco Ted And The Five Sombreros.
“I was peeing in Mobile Bay sitting in an inter-tube,’’ said the Gulf Shores resident, whose father graduated from McGill High School a year before Buffett.
I never saw Buffett (or John Prine) play at the Flora-Bama. Neither did Darrell Roberts, even though he started playing music there in 1982.
Roberts spent a short time at BC Rain High, about seven miles west of Buffett’s McGill. Already a road musician, he came back from Austin at 18 and met Buffett at a Mobile record store (Darrell was working). They’ve crossed paths at home and on the road ever since.
“I remember him coming into the Flora-Bama, but I don’t ever remember him getting up and playing,’’ Roberts said. “I’d get there and Joe (Gilchrist) would tell me he had just played.
“A lot of times Jimmy would be there by himself. The last time I saw him was a couple of years ago eating gumbo at The Point.’’
Roberts, Lea Anne Creswell and J Hawkins are the three early Flora-Bama possible-probables still playing gigs around town.
Creswell said she loved it when Buffett told the ‘Bama audience not to bother shouting out requests, as he was going to play what he felt like playing.
Hawkins said he was on a break in the front bar around 1982 when he looked through the window and saw someone pick up his guitar on the main room stage.
“I was about to go in and kick somebody’s a@#, but by the time I got to the stage I saw who it was,’’ Hawkins said. “It was not unusual to see him in there. He’d pop in periodically and just sit down and enjoy the music. It wasn’t any big deal.’’
Buffett’s first book, Greetings From Margaritaville, was set on Perdido Key. Written in 1989, it was the first of his three best sellers and earned a place on The New York Times fiction and non-fiction best seller lists.
“That book had everything to do with why I moved here,’’ said the Mullet Wrapper’s own Ron (Funny Bones) Jones. “So, yes, he had an influence on my life. I rented a place on West Beach for $350 on Dec. 17, 1992, and the first thing I did was have a filet and a piece of key lime pie at Coconut Willy’s. I joined a gym, found a coffee house and took three months off to figure out what I was going to do. And I used his music as my soundtrack.’’
Although Buffett was born in Pascagoula, he grew up in Mobile. Buffett’s mother (Mary) inspired his love for literature and his father (James) and grandfather his love for the sea. He was an alter boy at St. Ignatius and graduated in 1964 from McGill.
“I’ve got some fond memories and some not-so-fond memories there,” Buffett said about his time at McGill in an Al.com interview.
Buffett matriculated for a short period at Auburn, and then attended Pearl River Community College. By the time he graduated from Southern Miss in 1969 with as a history/journalism major, he was already playing in French Quarter bands and busking on Bourbon St.
Like most males, he started playing guitar to meet girls, and he honed his craft playing gigs at the Admiral Semmes Hotel in downtown Mobile.
His first trip to Key West was as a passenger in Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1947 Packard after a gig fell through in Miami in late 1970. He decided to stay and write about that city’s characters, wanderers, adventurers, smugglers, con artists and free-spirits.
Buffett made some noise with the song Come Monday from his Living and Dying in 3/4 Time album in 1974, but everything changed for him in 1977, when he released Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.
The album included the most requested song ever on Pleasure Island – and maybe America. His only top 10 single, Margaritaville was a 22 week mainstay on the Billboard chart.
“It was like a vacation to listen to that song,’’ said Taylor in Rolling Stone. “But at the same time, it exposed itself and gave you a hint of the dirty underside – the hangover.’’
Margaritaville (Page 18) was accepted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2016 for its cultural and historic significance and helped brand Key West as an international destination resort.
“There was no such place as Margaritaville,” Buffett told the Arizona Republic in 2021. “It was a made-up place in my mind, basically made up about my experiences in Key West and having to leave Key West and go on the road to work and then come back and spend time by the beach.”
The copyright on that song inspired a business empire that grew to include a Broadway play, Grammy nominations, casinos, retirement communities and hotels, a radio station, clothing and apparel lines, food, beer, tequila, salad dressings and even salsa. Forbes (Page 20) placed Buffett’s net worth at $1 billion when he passed.
Buffett left his fans with 27 albums and numerous high quality downloads from his 30 song concerts that left attendees as exhausted as he was, partly because of the legendary pre-concert parties that Parrot Heads – there are 200 local chapters across the United States – use as an excuse to turn every venue’s parking lot into a tropical island, a mini-Mardi Gras.
“When he’s doing a show, he thinks about his show more than anything. He has a family and a business and everything else, but Jimmy’s show, I think, is the most important thing in his life,” said Coral Reefer guitarist Mac McAnally.
Buffett described the Parrot Heads in 2012 as “the social network before there was a social network.”
Coral Reefer bassist Timothy B. Schmit, coined the phrase.
“People had already started wearing Hawaiian shirts to our shows, but we looked out at this Cincinnati crowd and they were glaringly brilliant to the point where it got our attention immediately,” Buffett said. “Then Schmit says, ‘They look like Deadheads in tropical suits. They’re like Parrot Heads!’”
Buffett’s friend James Taylor tells what he thanks is the perfect Parrot Head story.
“Jimmy was wakesurfing one day. He was trying to catch a wave from a tanker, a big freighter,’’ Taylor said. “Jimmy somehow got the captain’s name from the Coast Guard. You can track marine traffic on your cell phone if you have the right app. He got in touch with the captain of the boat, and the guy changed his course and altered his speed to make the perfect wave for Jimmy to ride behind this freighter. The captain was a Parrot Head.’’
Buffett’s grandfather was a steamship captain and his father traveled to India and Africa as a naval architect with the Army Corps of Engineers. So, he came by his adventurous spirit and wunderlust naturally. The Gulf of Mexico was his doorway to a world full of characters like those he heard about from his grandfather, according to his bio.
“The siren call of exotic ports was in contrast to his days as a parochial school student and an altar boy, and it only took a guitar to take him off course from the life his parents had imagined for him,” it stated.
Son of a Son of a Sailor, released in 1978, was Buffett’s most obvious ode to his grandfather: “The sea’s in my veins. My tradition remains. I’m just glad I don’t live in a trailer,” he sang.
“You can’t grow up around water and not develop an almost cellular longing to be out in a boat on that water. So many of his songs resonate with his love of exploring the ocean,’’ Buffett’s sister Lucy told AL.com. “That notion was born in his youth on Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island, Gulf Shores and the Mississippi barrier islands.”
Buffett has been described as a “life’s a beach avatar” and “Hemingway with a guitar and a Whaler boat.’’ “Bard of beach rock” and “poet of paradise’’ also fit. And he was as comfortable writing heartfelt a ballad like A Pirate Looks at Forty as he was with playful rockers like Cheeseburger.
“When you look at his entire catalog, you can’t help but appreciate his deep emotional side. Much to his own chagrin, I might add. He’s really quite modest and private; like most men, he won’t wallow in the emotional side of things for very long. He really is more of a ‘breathe in, breathe out, move on’ kind of guy,” Lucy Buffett said.
Shea Jordan of Gulf Shores said she would play her dad’s copy of the 45 single Come Monday over and over again when she was a child.
“Those 45’s were everything to me because I was kept from him. Those records made me feel like I was with my dad and kept me connected. Music is so personal and Come Monday was absolutely one of my favorites.
“I still have those old 45’s and they are still in the same olive green twist handled cylinder holders,’’ Jordan added.
Buffett helped make having a devil-may-care, gently rebellious nature an appropriate lifestyle. He bottled and sold the idea that attitude was directly affected by latitude.
That so many fans looked at Buffett like he was part of their family seemed normal. The connection was that strong. He allowed us to grow older while refusing to grow up.
And he did all that just by being himself.
James Taylor put it this way: “The main thing he shared with us was his joy of being alive. It was a gift to be around him, and it was delightful to witness that life. He had an immense amount of positive energy.’’