It was one of those “throwaway” songs, a silly little tune that Jimmy Buffett didn’t give a whole lot of thought, one of many, many songs he wrote while traveling across the nation, one bar at a time. A song that took him no more than 20 minutes to write.
He scrawled the first part of the lyric on a yellow notebook pad in 1976, after drinking the afternoon away in a Mexican restaurant in an Austin, Texas, strip mall. He later finished it in his car, while stuck in a traffic jam on his way to Key West, Fla.
Buffett called the little song “Margaritaville” – a nod to the drink that kept him company in that Mexican restaurant.
The rest is history. “Margaritaville” turned life on its ear for Buffett, a struggling, hard-drinking singer-songwriter who had knocked around Nashville, New Orleans, Key West and other localities, trying to make a name for himself.
Thanks to “Margaritaville,” “Come Monday,” “A Pirate Looks At Forty” and many other fine songs, and thanks to a devoted group of fans who call themselves the “Parrott Heads” and turn every concert into an unforgettable party scene, Buffett became one of the most amazing success stories in the history of popular music.
Since 1990, Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band have grossed more than $400 million from concert tours. Between 2000 and 2009, he was the 10th highest grossing musical act in America, which puts Buffett up there with with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and the Rolling Stones.
His business empire – built around the theme of the Margaritaville song – is even more impressive. Margaritaville restaurants, hotels, T-shirts, drinks, bicycles, hammocks, luggage and other products rack up annual sales of $1.5 billion.
How did all this happen? Oregon-based journalist Ryan White lays it all out in this enjoyable book, a very pleasant read.
As far as I can tell, the 70-year-old Buffett did not talk to White, but the reporter interviewed many people who know him well and were instrumental in his career, including Florida author Tom Corcoran, record producer Norbert Putnam, manager Don Light and many of the musicians from Buffett’s band.
White tells us about Buffett’s family, starting with the adventures of the late James Delaney Buffett, a real-life sea captain who grew up in Sydney, Nova Scotia. He tells us of Buffett’s childhood in Mobile and Fairhope, Alabama, where the future superstar began learning his musicial chops as a trombone player in an elementary school band.
We learn that life wasn’t always a breeze for Buffett. We read about the time he spent as a young man in Nashville, where he toiled briefly as a newspaper reporter while trying to gain a foothold in the tough world of songwriting.
We learn about how Buffett scratched out a living for years as a barroom singer in Key West and elsewhere, and how he finally made it big after writing Margaritaville. And how he hung out with stars like Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford while sailing, fishing, flying jetplanes and overall having one heck of a good time.
“He’s a daydream, Jimmy Buffett,” White writes. “He continues to smile a smile that hasn’t changed in decades, a smile that says, ‘Can you believe I got away with this?’ “