Jimmy Buffett, Roguish Bard of Island Escapism, Is Dead at 76

Jimmy Buffett, the singer, songwriter, author, sailor and entrepreneur whose roguish brand of island escapism on hits like “Margaritaville” and “Fins” made him something of a latter-day folk hero, especially among his devoted following of so-called Parrot Heads, died on Friday. He was 76.

His death was announced ina statement on his website. The statement did not say where he died or specify a cause.

Peopled with pirates, smugglers, beach bums and barflies, Mr. Buffett’s genial, self-deprecating songs conjured a world of sun, saltwater and nonstop parties animated by the calypso country-rock of his limber Coral Reefer Band. His live shows abounded with singalong anthems and festive tropical iconography, making him a perennial draw on the summer concert circuit, where he built an ardent fan base akin to the Grateful Dead’s Dead Heads.

Mr. Buffett found success primarily with albums. He enjoyed only a few years on the pop singles chart, with “Margaritaville,” his 1977 breakthrough hit and only single to reach the pop Top 10.

“I blew out my flip-flop/Stepped on a pop-top/Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home,” he sang woozily to the song’s lilting Caribbean rhythms. “But there’s booze in the blender/And soon it will render/That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.”

Mr. Buffett’s music was often described as “Gulf and western,” a nod to his fusion of laid-back twang and island-themed lyrics, as well as a play on the conglomerate name Gulf and Western, the former parent of Paramount Pictures, among other companies.

His songs tended to be of two main types: wistful ballads like “Come Monday” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” and clever up-tempo numbers like “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Some were both, like “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” a 1978 homage to Mr. Buffett’s seafaring grandfather, written with the producer Norbert Putnam.

“I’m just a son of a son, son of a son/
Son of a son of a sailor,” he sang. “The sea’s in my veins, my tradition remains/I’m just glad I don’t live in a trailer.”

The Caribbean and the Gulf Coast were Mr. Buffett’s muses, and nowhere more so than Key West in Florida. He first visited the island at the urging of Jerry Jeff Walker, his sometime songwriting and drinking partner, after a gig fell through in Miami in the early ’70s.

“When I found Key West and the Caribbean, I wasn’t really successful yet,” Mr. Buffett said in a 1989 interview with The Washington Post. “But I found a lifestyle, and I knew that whatever I did would have to work around my lifestyle.”

Mr. Buffett had an affinity for sailing, and his songwriting was greatly influenced by his laid-back life in Key West.Credit…Gems/Redferns, via Getty Images

The locales provided Mr. Buffett with more than just a breezy, sailing life and grist for his songwriting. They were also the impetus for the creation of a tropical-themed business empire that included a restaurant franchise, a hotel chain and boutique tequila, T-shirt and footwear lines, all of which made him a millionaire hundreds of times over.

“I’ve done a bit of smugglin’, and I’ve run my share of grass,” Mr. Buffett sang of his early days trafficking marijuana in the Florida Keys in “A Pirate Looks at Forty.”

“I made enough money to buy Miami,” he went on, alluding to his subsequent entrepreneurial pursuits. “But I pissed it away so fast/Never meant to last/Never meant to last.”

His claim to squandering his wealth notwithstanding, Mr. Buffett proved to be a shrewd manager of his considerable fortune; in 2023, Forbes estimated his net worth at $1 billion.

“If Mr. Buffett is a pirate, to borrow one of his favorite images, it is hardly because of his days palling around with dope smugglers in the Caribbean,” the critic Anthony DeCurtis wrote in a 1999 essay for The New York Times. “He is a pirate in the way that Bill Gates and Donald Trump have styled themselves, as plundering rebels, visionary artists of the deal, not bound by the societal restrictions meant for smaller, more careful men.”

(The comparison to Mr. Trump here is strictly economic; Mr. Buffett was a Democrat.)

Mr. Buffett was also an accomplished author, one of only six writers, along with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and William Styron, to top both The Times’s fiction and nonfiction best-seller lists. By the time he wrote “Tales from Margaritaville” (1989), the first of his three No. 1 best sellers, he had abandoned the hedonistic lifestyle he had previously embraced.

“I could wind up like a lot of my friends did, burned out or dead, or redirect the energy,” he told The Washington Post in 1989. “I’m not old, but I’m getting older. That period of my life is over. It was fun — all that hard drinking, hard drugging. No apologies.”

“I still have a very happy life,” he went on. “I just don’t do the things I used to do.”

Mr. Buffett in 1991. “Margaritaville,” his blockbuster hit, rocketed him to fame in 1977.Credit…Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect, via Getty Images

James William Buffett was born on Dec. 25, 1946, in Pascagoula, Miss., one of three children of Mary Loraine (Peets) and James Delaney Buffett Jr. Both of his parents were longtime employees of the Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Company. His father was a manager of government contracts, and his mother, known simply as Peets, was an assistant director of industrial relations.

Jimmy was raised Roman Catholic in Mobile, Ala., where he took up the trombone in elementary school, at St. Ignatius Catholic School. He went to high school at another Catholic institution in Mobile, the McGill Institute.

In 1964 he enrolled in classes at Auburn University. He flunked out and later attended the University of Southern Mississippi in Biloxi, where he began performing in clubs. He graduated with a degree in history in 1969, before moving to the French Quarter and playing in a cover band on Bourbon Street.

In 1970 he moved to Nashville, hoping to make it as a country singer while working as a journalist for Billboard. (Mr. Buffett was credited with having broken the story about the disbanding of the pioneering bluegrass duo Flatt and Scruggs.) “Down to Earth,” his debut album, was released on Andy Williams’s Barnaby label that year. It sold 324 copies.

Mr. Buffett’s second album for Barnaby, “High Cumberland Jubilee,” went unreleased until 1976, long after he had signed with ABC-Dunhill and recorded “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean,” released in 1973 and featuring the debauched party anthem “Why Don’t We Get Drunk.”

Mr. Buffett had a fondness for puns, as witnessed by “A White Sport Coat,” an album title inspired by the song “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation),” a 1957 pop-crossover hit for the country singer Marty Robbins. Another album was called “Last Mango in Paris.”

The “Margaritaville” restaurant and hotel chains are part of the tropical-themed business empire that Mr. Buffett built.Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Mr. Buffett’s 1974 release “Living and Dying in ¾ Time” included a version of the comedian Lord Buckley’s “God’s Own Drunk.” “Come Monday,” a lovelorn track from the record, became his first Top 40 hit.

“A1A” (also from 1974) was named for the oceanfront highway that runs along Florida’s Atlantic coastline. The album was Mr. Buffett’s first to contain references to Key West and maritime life, but it was 1977’s platinum-selling “Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes,” with the blockbuster hit “Margaritaville,” that finally catapulted him to stardom. “Fins,” another major single, was released in 1979.

A series of popular releases followed, culminating in 1985 with “Songs You Know By Heart,” a compilation of Mr. Buffett’s most beloved songs to date. The record became the best-selling album of his career.

Mr. Buffett also opened the first of his many “Margaritaville” stores in 1985. That was the year that the former Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit, then a member of the Coral Reefer Band, coined the term Parrot Heads to describe Mr. Buffett’s staunch legion of fans, the bulk of whom were baby boomers.

A supporter of conservationist causes, Mr. Buffett moved away from the Keys in the late ’70s because of the area’s increasing commercialization. He initially relocated to Aspen, Colo., before making his home on St. Barts in the Caribbean. He also had houses in Palm Beach, Fla., and Sag Harbor, on eastern Long Island.

In addition to touring and recording, activities he pursued into the 2020s, Mr. Buffett wrote music for movies like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Urban Cowboy.” He also appeared in movies and television shows, including “Rancho Deluxe,” “Jurassic World” and the “Hawaii Five-O” revival in the 2010s, where he starred as the helicopter pilot Frank Bama, a character from his best-selling 1992 novel, “Where Is Joe Merchant?”

Mr. Buffett favored wordplay in the names of his songs and albums, like “Last Mango in Paris” and “Jamaica Mistaica,” a sendup song about an incident that involved Jamaican authorities mistakenly shooting at one of his planes.Credit…Aaron Richter for The New York Times

An avid pilot, Mr. Buffett owned several aircraft and often flew himself to his shows. In 1994 he crashed one of his airplanes in waters near Nantucket, Mass., while taking off. He survived the accident, after swimming to safety, with only minor injuries.

In 1996 another of Mr. Buffett’s planes, Hemisphere Dancer, was shot at by the Jamaican police, who suspected the craft was being used to smuggle marijuana. On board the airplane, which sustained little damage, were U2’s Bono; Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records; and Mr. Buffett’s wife and two daughters. The Jamaican authorities later admitted the incident was a case of mistaken identity, inspiring Mr. Buffett to write “Jamaica Mistaica,” a droll sendup of the affair.

Mr. Buffett is survived by his wife, Jane (Slagsvol) Buffett; two daughters, Savanah Jane and Sarah Buffett; a son, Cameront; two grandson; and two sisters, Lucy and Laurie Buffett.

In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Mr. Buffett was asked about a previous remark in which he somewhat incongruously cited the wholesome choral director Mitch Miller and the marauding Gulf Coast pirate Jean Lafitte as two of his greatest inspirations.

“Mitch Miller, for sure,” Mr. Buffett said, doubtless in acknowledgment of the way his own fans sang along with him at concerts. “In the old days: “Sing Along with Mitch?” Who didn’t?”

“But Jean Lafitte was my hero as a romantic character,” he continued. “I’m not sure he was a musical influence. His lifestyle influenced me, most definitely, ’cause I’m the very opposite of Mitch Miller.”

Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting.

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