24 Facts About Jimmy Buffett’s Sun-Drenched Career
Jimmy Buffett has made a career out of the sun-and-sand lifestyle: getting tan, playing guitar, drinking margaritas and being eternally on vacation on a beach somewhere. He started in music. blending country, rock, folk and pop to create his own sound.
Buffett realized early in his career, though, that musicians were often not well paid for their music. So he expanded his vision, creating an empire selling his brand of easy-going, tropical living and beach-bum persona. As Buffett himself said in a New York Times article, “I don’t know anyone alive that wouldn’t want to go to the beach for a week.”
Forbes estimated Buffett’s net worth at $550 million in 2016, and, in 2018, he earned $51 million. Despite being a well-known musician with over fifty albums and sold-out tours, Buffett makes most of his money from his chain of Margaritaville-branded restaurants, hotels, casinos, resorts and merchandise.
In addition to his business empire, Buffett is a best-selling author, pilot, sailor and environmental activist, with his own record label and radio station. Here’s how he forged his incredible career.
Buffett’s Early Life
Buffett was born James William Buffett III on Christmas Day 1946 into a seafaring family on the Gulf Coast, in Pascagoula, Mississippi. His grandfather ran away at 13 to be a sailor. His father served in the Army Corps of Engineers and later worked in the Gulf Coast maritime industry. Buffett grew up learning to sail and listening to his grandfather’s stories of life at sea. Buffett went to Catholic school and played the trumpet in the school band, graduating in 1964.
He's the Son of a Son of a Sailor
One of Buffett’s hit songs is called “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” based on his grandfather’s stories of life at sea. Buffett worked for years as first mate aboard industrialist Foster Talge’s yacht, Petticoat III, out of Key West, Florida, to supplement his income when he was starting out as a musician.
He Started Playing Guitar While in College
He first went to Auburn University, where he began playing guitar. He later transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
He Once Wrote for Billboard Magazine
Buffett started out writing about musicians for Billboard magazine before he became one. Buffett said this job first made him realize how poorly musicians were paid and that he needed other sources of income, rather than just relying on his music.
He Has a Distinct Musical Sound
Buffett started his musical career in Nashville as a country artist and released his first album, “Down to Earth.” It had a folk-rock sound. He soon began to combine country, rock, folk and pop to get a sound sometimes called Gulf and Western. His music also incorporates tropical island instruments, such as steel drums. Buffett himself calls his music “drunken Caribbean rock ’n’ roll.” One music critic described Buffett’s music as “tropical languor with country funkiness” that blends into a “Key West sound.”
The Fifty-Fifty Club
Buffett has been both recording albums for 50 years and has released at least 50 albums (both studio and live) so far in his career. He has had eight gold albums and nine platinum records.
The Lost Tapes
In 1969, Buffett moved to Nashville and landed a two-record deal with Barnaby Records. When his first album, “Down to Earth,” didn’t sell well, the record company mysteriously “lost” the master tapes for Buffett’s second album, which meant it couldn’t be released. Once Buffett was famous, many years later, the lost tapes were found and released.
The Key West Influence
Buffett went to Miami for a gig, which fell through. He stayed at the house of fellow musician (and future country music star) Jerry Jeff Walker, who took Buffett on a busking trip to Key West. Buffett decided to move to Florida, as the lifestyle better fit his music, and he began to hone his Key West sound.
His Second Debut
After moving to Florida, Buffett signed with ABC-Dunhill Records and began to release albums with his Key West sound. These albums got good reviews and Buffett became an established musician. In 1974, Buffett put together the Coral Reefer Band, with musicians he had known from Nashville. In 1977, Buffett had his first major hit, “Margaritaville,” and spent the 1980s touring with his band, becoming a popular concert performer and making more money from touring than from his albums.
He Didn’t Have a Top Ten Song Until His Seventh Album
The song that first made Buffett famous — “Margaritaville” — was released in 1977 on his seventh album, “Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude.” This was Buffett’s first platinum album. “Margaritaville” has been his only top-ten hit and the one most people associate with him. Despite his long musical career, a Buffett album didn’t top the U.S. pop charts until “License to Chill” in 2004 debuted at No. 1.
He Didn’t Win Awards Until Late in His Career
In 2003, Buffett released a duet with Alan Jackson called “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” which was a No. 1 hit on the country charts. The song won Buffett a Country Music Association Award, the first music industry award he received in his career. Buffett was also nominated for a Grammy in 2004 and 2005.
He Owns His Own Record Label and Radio Station
Buffett realized that a record company makes more money per album than the artist so he set up his own label, Mailboat Records, in 1999. His label releases live albums of other well-known artists, such as Def Leppard and Chris Isaak, as well as debut albums of up-and-coming musicians. He also has his own internet radio station (Radio Margaritaville) and online TV (Margaritaville.tv), both of which continuously stream Buffett’s music and live concert footage.
Buffett Embraces Corporate Sponsorship
In the 1980s, as his record sales dropped, Buffett reached out to Corona beer to sponsor his summer tours. Corona used Buffett as their brand spokesman in a $2 million campaign and their share of the imported beer market rose 800 percent. Buffett has continued his partnership with a beer brand, this time promoting LandShark Lager, which is brewed by Anheuser-Busch, and sold at Buffett’s concerts and Margaritaville restaurants.
He Has Business Savvy to Spare
In a New York Times article, Buffett said that a business class he took in college made him think in terms of goods and services, supply and demand. After initially struggling in the music business, and realizing how poorly most musicians were paid, he decided to capitalize on his own lifestyle brand.
He bought his own tour buses and rented them to other bands. He took over merchandise sales at his concerts, selling better-quality items and keeping the profit. Buffett then turned his Margaritaville concept into a profitable merchandise line, then a chain of restaurants, casinos and bars, and now hotels and even retirement communities.
Margaritas and Cheeseburgers
In 1985, Buffett’s brand, Margaritaville Holdings, began to open Margaritaville-themed merchandise stores and restaurants. The brand now has 50 licensed categories, according to a Forbes article, in the southeast United States and Caribbean, including restaurants (Margaritaville, JWB Prime Steak and Seafood, Cheeseburger in Paradise), bars (5 O’Clock Somewhere Bar & Grill, LandShark Bar & Grill), casinos, hotels and resorts. All together, Buffett’s empire was estimated to have more than $1.5 billion in sales in 2017.
He Has Grand Real Estate Ventures
In 2018, Buffett’s company opened One Particular Harbour marina and luxury residences (named after yet another Buffett song) on a 220-acre private island in Florida. Buffett’s latest business venture is a retirement village for over-55’s, called Latitude Margaritaville. The$1 billion project is currently being built in Daytona Beach, Florida, with about 7,000 homes that will start at about $200,000. The community will have beachfront views, a fitness center, pools, a spa and a live music venue.
He’s a Best-Selling Author
Buffett’s one of only six writers to have both fiction and non-fiction books reach No. 1 on the New York Times best seller list. His first book, “Tales from Margaritaville,” was a semi-autobiographical collection of short stories. His memoir, “A Pirate Looks at Fifty,” went straight to No. 1. His novels include “Where is Joe Merchant?,” “A Salty Piece of Land” and “Swine Not?” He co-wrote two children’s books, “The Jolly Mon” and “Trouble Dolls,” with his eldest daughter, Savannah.
He Works in Theater, Too
In 1994, Buffett worked with author Herman Wouk to create a musical based on Wouk’s book, “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” about a New Yorker who moves to a Caribbean island to reinvent himself. The musical opened in 1997 to negative reviews and the show was cancelled. More recently, Buffett re-wrote many of his hit songs for a new musical “Escape to Margaritaville,” about a beach bar singer on a small tropical island who falls in love with a tourist. The musical opened on May 2017 to mixed reviews and will tour the U.S. in 2019.
He’s a Marine Environment Activist
In 1981, Buffett and former Florida governor, Bob Graham, set up the Save the Manatee Club to protect endangered manatees, Florida’s official state marine mammal. Buffett also supports the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab, a non-profit that provides marine life for research labs and schools, and studies endangered marine species and sea farming.
He Raises Money for Charity
Buffett set up Singing for Change in 1995, a charity funded by one dollar from every concert ticket he sells. Singing for Change gives small grants to grass-roots organizations and has given out $11 million in grants so far. Buffett is also known for holding benefit concerts for hurricane relief.
Parrot Heads Unite
The Grateful Dead has Dead Heads. Lady Gaga has her Little Monsters. Buffett has his Parrot Heads – all names given to each group or artist’s fans. Buffett and his band noticed that fans were wearing Hawaiian shirts — the band’s uniform — to their concerts and nicknamed them “Parrot Heads.” The name stuck and fans responded by wearing parrot feathers and masks. The Jimmy Buffett fan club is even called “Parrot Heads in Paradise.”
Buffett’s Fan Clubs Focus on Charity Work and Volunteering
Parrot Heads in Paradise was started in 1989 in Atlanta by fan Scott Nickerson. Nickerson wanted a way for Buffett fans to come together socially to share a love of Buffett’s music, but also to give back to the community. In 2017, over 200 worldwide clubs raised over $4.1 million for charity and donated 198,000 volunteer hours.
Buffett’s a Pilot
Buffett said he planned in college to learn how to fly and took flying lessons on and off over the years, but never qualified. He vowed he would get his license by the time he was 40. Around the time he turned 40, Buffett bought a seaplane and hired a private instructor. Six months later, he obtained his single-engine license. Buffett has owned Boeing Stearman, Lake Amphibian and Grumman Albatross planes over the years.
He’s Also a Part-Time Actor
Besides playing a pilot in the film “Congo,” Buffett also had a small part in the 1994 biopic based on the life of baseball player Ty Cobb. He played a disabled heckler beaten up by Cobb. He’s also had cameos in “Jurassic World,” “Repo Man,” “Hook” and other films. Buffett has had small parts — often playing himself — on TV series such as “Hawaii Five-0,” “NCIS: New Orleans” and “Sesame Street.”