Jimmy Buffett, the beloved “Margaritaville” singer/songwriter whose laidback, tropical style improbably helped turn him into one of the most successful musicians of the rock’n’roll era, died last night (Sept. 1) at the age of 76, according to posts on his social media accounts. “Jimmy passed away peacefully surrounded by his family, friends, music, and dogs,” it reads. “He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many.”
According to TMZ, Buffett was diagnosed in 2019 with skin cancer, which developed into lymphoma. No official cause of death has been announced, although the artist was healthy enough to give a final three-song performance during a surprise set on June 1 at a small venue in Amagansett, N.Y.
Buffett accumulated a fortune worth more than a billion dollars thanks largely to a song he wrote while drinking in an Austin, Tx., bar in 1976. Of course, “Margaritaville” went on to launch an empire of restaurants, merchandise, a short story collection, frozen foods, retirement communities, Buffett’s own brand of marijuana, and even a 2018 Broadway musical. It also spawned a Grateful Dead-style fan subculture of Parrotheads, who gleefully traveled from show to show dressed in Hawaiian shirts and parrot hats.
At the time of the song’s creation, Buffett had just finished a series of gigs opening for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, during which played to a lot of confused, zonked-out freaks. He sat in the bar, reflecting on his career, his time in Key West, Fla., and what the future might hold. Buffett’s drink at the moment: a margarita.
Released on Feb. 14, 1977, “Margaritaville” paints the portrait of a hungover man who spends his days loafing about a small beach community. From his porch, he watches tourists sunbathe while casually strumming his six-string guitar. He picks at some leftover sponge cake. In the kitchen, a pot of shrimp is beginning to boil, and somewhere around the house is a misplaced salt shaker. He ganders at his new tattoo, not quite sure where or when he got it. At the end, he limps home after busting his flip-flop and cutting his heel on a discarded soda can, but a blender of lime-green salvation awaits: “That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.”
Buffett was born on Christmas Day 1946 in Pascagoula, Ms., and grew up in Mobile, Al. He began performing while in college at the University of Southern Mississippi, including early gigs in New Orleans, and moved to Nashville after graduation to try his hand at the music business. By 1971, he’d fallen in love with the bohemian beach town of Key West, Fl., and early albums such as A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean revealed the influence of his time in the tropics.
That concept finally clicked with listeners on the 1977 album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, which featured “Margaritaville.” By the 1980s, he’d built himself into a consistent live draw with his Coral Reefer Band, with songs such as “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Come Monday,” “A Pirate Looks at 40,” and “Fins” embodying his feel-good, country-tinged rock sound. Well into the 2010s, Buffett played to packed houses every summer, and sold more than 4.5 million tickets during the first 10 years of the decade, per Pollstar.
He also enjoyed surprising late-career success on country radio thanks to collaborations with Alan Jackson on “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” and the Zac Brown Band on “Knee Deep,” both of which topped the Billboard country charts. Buffett was planning to release a new song, “My Gummy Just Kicked In,” on Sept. 8. The track, which he debuted during a July on-air interview with Long Island radio station WLNG, features Paul McCartney on bass.
In May, he was forced to postpone a handful of shows due to unspecified medical issues which required a brief hospital stay in Boston. “Growing old is not for sissies, I promise you,” he said at the time, adding, “You all make my life more meaningful and fulfilled than I would have ever imagined as a toe-headed little boy sitting on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.”
Buffett tributes are pouring in from fellow musicians, fans, and even former President Bill Clinton, who wrote on social media, “Jimmy Buffett’s music brought happiness to millions of people. I’ll always be grateful for his kindness, generosity, and great performances through the years, including at the White House in 2000. My thoughts are with his family, friends, and legion of devoted fans.”
“Thanks for your friendship and the songs I will carry in my heart forever,” wrote longtime friend and collaborator Kenny Chesney in the caption of an Instagram video of himself performing “A Pirate Looks at 40” alone on a beach. Added Elton John on Instagram Stories, “Jimmy Buffett was a unique and treasured entertainer. His fans adored him and he never let them down. This is the saddest of news. A lovely man gone way too soon.”
Additional reporting by Mike Postalakis.