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 agao.
As soon as the rugby 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.
My publishing highmark came early. Buffett wrote us a letter to the editor in response to a solid story one of my Parrot Head rugby teammates, Bob Patroni, wrote about him as a preview to his 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’m proud to have stayed in business through hurricanes and an oil spill. But that letter from 34 years ago remains my hallmark.
That I get to honor Buffett, an international icon who still has local status here, with a picture (from his facebook page) is hard to fathom.
So, yeah. This one hurts.
Buffet 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.
“Growing old is not for sissies, I promise you,” Buffett wrote on his website after cancelling stops on his 2023 tour.
“He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many,” Buffett’s family posted.
“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.
My rugby connection with Buffett continued in 1983 when I moved here from NOLA and hooked up with the Aviators from Pensacola RFC, 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 they?
Buffett was Lower Alabama culture. He grew up with the same perfect sand between his toes. He 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.
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. But I was inside with Brent in spirit. 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 and assorted airplanes.
I saw Buffett the only time he ever played at his sister’s restaurant in Gulf Shores. He was billed as Freddie & The Fishsticksa and it as the day of his scheduled show on the beach postponed by the threat of Hurricane Alex.
“I guess I psuedo opened for Jimmy Buffett,’’ said another Mobile raised musician, Wes Loper, who played the inside stage before The Fishsticks went on outside. Loper, who also lent Buffett his guitar to play for his mother at LuLu’s Weeks Bay a few years earlier, said the two also shared a Grammy winning producer, Alan Schulman.
“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 been already been said or that he has not already written in his own songs.”
Jimmy Buffett’s free Gulf Shores Public Beach show, fully sponsored by BP, finally went off 11 days he played at LuLu’s.
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, worked with Buffett’s concert team and was able to get Lucy’s Buffett’s “One Love – One Ocean” fundraising t-shirt on Buffett’s back.
“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 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 does 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.
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 the Deepwater Horizon well.
That 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 the Coral Reefer Band at the beach. 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.
Another early release from the album is Like My Dog. Buffet was an avid animal lover and owned several dogs, among them Lola, Kingston, Pepper, Rosie, Ajax and Kody.
“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.”
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’ Jimmy Hall recently posted. It is a safe bet that Jimmy and the great Wet Willie will cover a Buffett song when they play their Oct. 14 Shrimp Fest set.
Friends have seen Buffett play at LuLu’s on Weeks Bay, and Judge Roy Beans in Daphne.
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 a year before Buffett.
I never saw Buffett (or John Prine) at the ‘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. 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 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 1983 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 wrote us a letter to the editor in response to a solid story one of my Parrot Head rugby teammates, Bob Patroni, wrote about him as a preview to his July of 1990 concert at Ladd Memorial Stadium (with Little Feat and Clint Black opening).
Although he was born in Pascagoula, Buffett was raised by parents Mary and James in Mobile. 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 on The Plains, and then attended Pearl River Community College. By the time he graduated from Southern Miss in 1969 with a history degree, 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 the early 1970s. 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 the world. 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 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 bestselling books, a Broadway play, Grammy nominations, Margaritaville casinos, retirement communities and hotels, a radio station, clothing and apparel lines, food, beer, tequila, salad dressings and even salsa. Just last month, Forbes placed Buffett’s net worth at $1 billion.
Buffett’s first book, Greetings From Margaritaville, was set on Perdido Key. The book, written in 1989, was the first of his three best sellers and earned a place on The New York Times fiction and non-fiction best seller list.
“That book had everything to do with why I moved here,’’ said our 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. I used his music as my soundtrack.’’
Buffett left his fans with 27 albums and numerous high quality downloads from two-and-a-half hour, 30 song concerts that left fans 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 Alabama native (Red Bay) and Coral Reefer guitarist 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. 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.’’ And he was as comfortable writing heartfelt ballads like Come Monday and A Pirate Looks at Forty as he was with playful rockers like Cheeseburger in Paradise.
“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 him 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 said.
Buffett helped make having a devil-may-care, gently rebellious nature an appropriate lifestyle.
He preached that attitude was directly affected by latitude.
Almost as an after thought, he made a fortune while doing so.
That so many fans looked at Buffett like he was part of their family seemed normal. The connection was that strong.
He allowed his fans 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.’’