In early 1973, a young, venturesome troubadour named Jimmy Buffett signed a recording contract with ABC/Dunhill records. At that time, singer/songwriters were in vogue, and in high demand, being …
In early 1973, a young, venturesome troubadour named Jimmy Buffett signed a recording contract with ABC/Dunhill records. At that time, singer/songwriters were in vogue, and in high demand, being frantically scooped up by major labels. The radio air waves were dominated by the likes of, among others, James Taylor, Laura Nyro, Jackson Browne, Carly Simon and Carole King.
At 26 years old, Buffett fit the mold, and although talented and promising, his presence took a back seat at his new record label due to their preoccupation with the gifted, singer/songwriter sensation on their roster – Jim Croce.
With songs like ‘Operator (That’s not the way it eels)’, ‘Time in a Bottle’ and ‘You don’t mess around with Jim’ – astoundingly, all major hits on his very first album – ABC continued to focus full attention and promotional muscle on their golden goose.
But in a tragic twist of fate, on Sept. 20, 1973, the day before his melancholy “I Got a Name” was released and an hour after leaving a stage concert in Natchitoches, La., Jim Croce’s plane, bound for a show in Sherman, Texas, crashed during takeoff, killing everyone on board.
As the entertainment world grieved, ABC was left to cope with the emotional, musical and business void created by Croce’s untimely death. It was eventually decided by the top executives at the label to now focus on who they hoped and believed could be the singer/songwriter heir apparent to Croce – Jimmy Buffett.
The rest of course is history.
By any measure, it has been a remarkable career, one that has spanned 50 years, 30 albums, multiple gold records, sold-out concerts around the world – astonishingly placing him on the Forbes list of Billionaires.
James William Buffett was born on Christmas day 1946 in Pascagoula, Mississippi. His grandfather, James Delaney Buffett, was a steamship captain and his father, James Delaney Buffett Jr., was a marine engineer and sailor. These early seafaring influences instilled in Buffett a love for the ocean and sailing, a love that would have a profound effect on his personal life and professional career.
At 15, Buffett attended a neighborhood party where he witnessed a local band performing. Intrigued, it was, ‘then and there,’ he said, that he decided to be a musician. He bought an acoustic guitar and within two months he played his first gig at a community hootenanny.
After graduating high school, where he played trombone in the school band, Buffett enrolled in Auburn University. There, he received guitar lessons from a friend and classmate. His interest in music and the guitar grew while his studies suffered. In 1966 he dropped out of college to pursue music full time, joining a regional rock band.
Struggling, with little success, Buffett quit the band, and while never abandoning his musical interests, he enrolled in The University of Southern Mississippi in 1969, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history. After college, he traveled to New Orleans, where he performed on the streets by day and the clubs along Bourbon street by night. In 1970, Buffett adopted a country music style and moved to Nashville, where he eventually signed a two-record recording contract with the small record label Barnaby Records.
His first album for Barnaby, titled “Down to Earth,” released in August 1970, sold 324 copies. His second album, “High Cumberland Jubilee,” was never released. He was told by the record company that the master tapes were “lost.”
Miraculously, these same masters were “found” and released as an album in 1976 after Buffett became internationally famous.
Feeling disillusionment in the Nashville music scene, Buffett and his good friend and fellow singer/songwriter, Jerry Jeff Walker, journeyed to Key West for the abundant sunshine and fresh musical opportunities. Walker felt out of place in Key West and eventually returned to Nashville and his progressive country roots, but Buffett remained, feeling a kinship to the climate, environment and lifestyle.
It was in Key West that Buffett married his country music influences with a laid-back tropical style and posture to create what has been described by musicologists and the rock press alike as “Calypso Rock.” This was the very sound and quality that brought him to the attention of Don Gant, head of ABC records, and ultimately to the world.
His third studio album and first for ABC, titled “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean,” was released in 1973. With songs like “Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit,” ”Why Don’t We Get Drunk” and “I Have Found Me a Home,” his carefree, tropical persona was in full swing. It also marked the first reference to his backup group, ‘The Coral Reef Band.’ Although the album sold well (well enough for Buffett to purchase his first boat), it fell short of gold status.
Ironically, his next album, “Living and Dying in 3/4 Time,”where he temporarily strayed from his signature, island-themed previous works, garnered him his first single to crack the Billboard Hot 100. The autobiographical classic, “Come Monday.”
For the casual listener, “Come Monday” plays like a smooth, MOR ballad. A refrain about a fellow pining for his girlfriend from afar. But upon closer examination, the song reveals the tale of a man on a path that is out of step with his original hopes and aspirations. When Buffett sings, “I’ve got my hush puppies on, I guess I never was meant for glitter Rock and Roll,” he offers up a stark testimonial to his personal doldrums. A man contractually trapped, lamenting the constraints, demands and paralyzing loneliness of a Carney’s life.
A ‘Margaritaville’ phenomenon
With the release of his epic “Margaritaville”, a song that was an 11th-hour addition to the “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” album, Jimmy Buffett ascended from hit singer/songwriter to a cultural phenomenon that has since bridged two centuries, morphing into a universal brand synonymous with libations, carousing and sailing away to the lazy, indolent life. But there is much more to the man than this mythical, legend infers.
Through his songs, Buffett communicates a duality of principle. Live life to the fullest with daring and abandon yet remember that with all opportunity comes responsibility. Show up. Do your job. Work your way towards the life you dream of. Be accountable for your actions. It’s a principle that has set him apart from the likes of, for instance, the theatrical band Kiss, when they chant, ‘I Wanna Rock and Roll all Night, and Party Every Day’, – a one-dimensional, shallow, teenage rant, sung by grown men in face paint.
Conversely, in his “Five o’clock Somewhere,” Buffett’s need for a break from the drudgery of his day job is tempered by his blue-collar sensibilities. When he sings, “I’d like to call him somethin’, I think I’ll just call it a day,” he’s fed up with his demanding boss, but knows enough not to burn his bridges and is “back to work by three.” It’s a perspective and reflection that is hardly the credo of a party animal.
A show in Portsmouth
Mike MacFarlane, owner of The Sunset Cove in Portsmouth, R.I., was planning to stage a summertime concert at his restaurant. He asked his long-time friend, guitarist Mac MacAnally, along with drummer Eric Darken, to provide live music for the occasion. MacAnally and Darken were both members of Jimmy Buffett’s touring band but were largely free over the summer due to Buffett’s recent hiatus.
In May, Buffett announced that after some “health issues and a brief hospitalization,” he was required, per doctor’s orders, to stay home and rest, temporarily suspending his nationwide tour but promised to return soon.
“Back in February, I asked Mac if he could do a summer concert behind Sunset Cove on the water. He said yes, and one of the dates that he was available was July 2, which happened to be my 50th birthday,” said Macfarlane. “We sold tickets and it was open to the public. It was promoted a couple months prior to the event. I basically tied the concert to my birthday.”
“I had hired the guys once before for a similar outdoor concert at the Cove in August of 2019,” said Macfarlane. “All the ‘Parrot heads,’ knowing full well who MacAnally and Darken worked with, converged, making the show a huge success.”
Macfarlane hoped to repeat the magic in 2023. The date was set, and the show was announced. Along with invited family and friends, 400 tickets were sold. All the planning fell into place perfectly. That day, even the fickle new England weather cooperated.
Jimmy asked to play
“Jimmy loved Mac. They were great friends. They spoke on the phone often, and on one of the calls Mac mentioned that he and Eric were playing a small, low key show in Rhode Island,” said Macfarlane. “Like most people who love their trade and love what they do, Jimmy couldn’t sit still ,so he asked, ‘if you guys are good with it and I’m feeling up to it, I’d like to fly out and play a few songs with you.’ ”
Naturally welcomed with open arms by an ecstatic MacFarlane, Buffett made the 20-minute flight on his private plane from Long Island to Middletown airport.
“He was great,” said Macfarlane. “He walked off the plane, put his hand out to me and said, ‘Hi I’m Jimmy,’ and I was just star struck. Backstage before the show he couldn’t have been nicer. A normal, genuine, hardworking guy. He sat in the back, tuned his guitar and had a little something to eat. He thanked me numerous times for having him there. Can you imagine? He was thanking me!”
“He brought his own guitar and made a set list of six or seven of his most famous hits. He knew what songs he wanted to play,” said Macfarlane, “He just wanted to perform. That’s what he does. His energy, attitude and laughter were tremendous. Mac said that nobody had more fun in Portsmouth that day than Jimmy Buffett. He came to a little venue on a little stage, just him and his guitar with Mac and Eric on the water with a dock behind him. What does Jimmy Buffett sing about the most? The ocean, the beach, the sun. The fact that he did his last show in The Ocean State in itself is amazing.”
“His daughter was there with him. She couldn’t have been sweeter,” said Macfarlane. “What I saw that day with his daughter was a daughter keeping an eye on dad. It wasn’t like she was there to party or socialize or be noticed. She was there just to keep an eye on dad.”
“I’ve talked to Mac and talked to Jimmy’s manager, for when the dust settles, to have some kind of memorial at The Sunset Cove to commemorate that day,” said Macfarlane. “We are gonna lovingly wrap our arms around it. It’ll be done very tastefully and respectfully. We will do a T-shirt regarding the day Jimmy played, and 100 per cent of the proceeds will go to The Dana Farber Cancer Institute, which was one of the charities listed in his obituary.”
On September 1, 2023, at his home in Sag Harbor, surrounded by his loving family, James William Buffett peacefully sailed away from these earthly shores, bound for his final, greatest voyage.
Michael Khouri is a Barrington resident writing occasionally about the Rhode Island music scene. Reach him at email@example.com.