Travel & Destinations

Jimmy Buffet: A Life Well-Lived

The announcement of Jimmy Buffet’s death on Sept. 1 was not just news of one more celebrity passing. It was a stunning, heartfelt loss to millions of grieving fans worldwide and countless other family, friends, and colleagues.

Simply put, Jimmy Buffet was legendary. His stellar career captured the very essence of Caribbean life. His music style, known as tropical rock, carried a theme of island escapism, much like how ocean waves and surfing will forever celebrate the Beach Boys.

Jimmy Buffet transcended generations. Millions of Americans between the ages of 16 and 90 know who he was, could name at least one of his songs, and sing a few lyrics. 

Buffet, parrot shirt, and the beach!
Buffet, parrot shirt, and the beach!

And who hasn’t excused that early cocktail with, well, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”

Jimmy Buffet’s fans, who proudly call themselves “Parrotheads,” have listened to his call to forget the office, ditch the house, and hit a Caribbean beach with flip-flops and a margarita, celebrating just being alive and drinking in the moment.

Some fans will tell you that what drew them to the artist’s music was his depiction of life as an endless party on a boat in the Florida Keys, with songs like “Margaritaville” and “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere.”

But his music wasn’t entirely hedonistic. Many told heartfelt and poignant tales, including “Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude,” “He Went to Paris,” “Come Monday,” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty.”

Jimmy Buffet’s Life and Career

James William Buffet was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi, on Christmas Day, 1946. As a child, he was exposed to the ocean as his grandfather was a Newfoundland steamship captain and his father was a maritime engineer and sailor.

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By the age of 15, he knew music was his calling. The early days took him to New Orleans, where he performed on the street on Bourbon Street. In 1970, Buffet moved to Nashville to further his country music career. Like any performer, he had his share of struggles.

In 1972, he headed to Key West, liking the lifestyle so much that he moved there. In 1977, he released the album “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” featuring the song “Margaritaville.”

Although his heyday was in the 70s, he never experienced a career roller-coaster ride but continued the steady pace with writing great music and performing his iconic songs.

License to ChillIn 2004, he released “License to Chill,” which sold over a quarter million copies in the first week, and the album topped the U.S. Pop Albums chart for the first time in his career.

Buffet’s tropical rock style showcased a combination of country, rock, folk, calypso, and pop, with coastal and tropical themes. He called it “simply drunken Caribbean rock and roll.” That unique style earned him eight certified gold and nine certified platinum or multi-platinum albums and over 20 million sold albums, leading him to become one of the world’s wealthiest musicians with a net worth of $1 billion. 

Buffett’s iconic Margaritaville restaurant, Bloomington, IN
Buffett’s iconic Margaritaville restaurant, Bloomington, IN

Buffet was an astute businessman, but the business was about living life to the fullest. He created his own record label, Margaritaville Records. He launched Margaritaville restaurants, retail stores, and resorts and wrote three New York Times best sellers. He was actively engaged in environmental conservation, charity performances, and disaster relief efforts.

He also enjoyed making cameo appearances in movies like “Hook,” “Congo,” and even the 2015 “Jurassic World, “where he sheltered two margaritas while dinosaurs ran amuck in the park. 

Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson perform
Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson perform

Entertainers loved collaborating with Buffet, including Alan Jackson with “Boats to Build” and Martina McBride in “Trip Around the Sun.” Anyone who’d ever seen Jimmy Buffet perform live on stage or television could see he loved his life and fans, and loved to perform. He would as effortlessly slip into his role as an entertainer as he slipped into his sockless, well-worn shoes and Caribbean shirts.

We recall our Jimmy Buffet moments, watching him on the big screen in his Margaritaville restaurant in Orlando, where he sang the song “Volcano.” And yes, the laid-back Caribbean décor featured a volcano, and the entire audience of drinkers and diners sang along until that darn volcano did erupt. It was magical.

Key West tribute to Jimmy Buffett | Photo courtesy of Janice Sakata-Schultze
Key West tribute to Jimmy Buffett | Photo courtesy of Janice Sakata-Schultze

Jimmy Buffet died at 76 due to complications of a rare and aggressive skin cancer diagnosed four years earlier. Family, friends, music, and his dogs were at his bedside to say goodbye.

He was timeless, and though we’ll feel the loss for some time, where there is a palm tree and a Caribbean beach, the spirit of Jimmy Buffet lives on.

Buffet once said, “If there is a heaven for me, I’m sure it has a beach attached to it.”


Noreen Kompanik

Noreen Kompanik is a freelance journalist, associate editor, and speaker from San Diego. A retired registered nurse, she now travels the world and writes about her adventures. Her stories have appeared in TravelPulse, Edible San Diego Magazine, Europe Up Close, International Living and more.

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