HomeEntertainmentHappy Birthday Jimmy Buffett: Life Story Behind the ‘Margaritaville’ Icon

Happy Birthday Jimmy Buffett: Life Story Behind the ‘Margaritaville’ Icon

by Josh Lanier
(Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT)

In between the copious amounts of eggnog and turkey, pour yourself a margarita and tuck into a cheeseburger in honor of Jimmy Buffett. The beloved beach bum turned 74 on Christmas Day, but don’t be mistaken. While Buffett plays the burnout with aplomb, he’s one of the music industry’s best businessmen and has built an unrivaled empire all while never having to take off his flip-flops.

James William Buffett was born in Mississippi in 1945 and grew up in Mobile, Alabama. He wasn’t very musically inclined as a child. In fact, he didn’t even pick up the guitar until his freshman year at Auburn University. But by the time he had graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1969, he knew he wanted to be a country singer.

He set out for Nashville, but it wasn’t an easy start.

His sky-high dreams were upset with the appropriately titled Down to Earth in 1970. The folk album sold 324 copies — total. While Bubba can sell out arenas today, you’d be likely to find him busking on street corners at that point. By 1972, he’d had enough. He packed up his bags and hopped into a car with Jerry Jeff Walker bound for Key West.

Walker, who would become a country music legend, died earlier this year. He and Buffett remained good friends. Buffett credits that road trip with helping him establish his career.

“Would I have gotten to Key West without Jerry Jeff? Probably,” Buffett wrote about Walkers’ influence on him when he moved to Florida. “And I probably could have found a job—I’d made the commitment. But it was so much easier because of him.”

Life in the Florida Keys Reshaped Jimmy Buffett

Life clicked for Jimmy Buffett on the islands. He lived on his boat and occasionally made some extra cash by smuggling marijuana from the Caribbean, the bio on his website says. His grandfather was a sailor so he’d learned to live and work on boats as a young boy.

Early on, Buffett played songs in exchange for drinks and toured in his spare time. But over time, island life pulled him in like a riptide. The beach life and his adventures on his boat seeped into his music. And his folk-first style evolved into the calypso country and tropical rock he’s most known for today.

He released five albums in the 1970s, with his seminal Margaritaville appearing on 1977s’ Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. From there, the legend began. Buffett earned his beach bum persona, but he leaned into it as well. He became one of the most beloved touring acts in the country, creating a devoted fanbase known as Parrotheads.

But he didn’t rely on his previous hits to sell tickets. He continued to create beloved classics. In 2003, he released It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere with Alan Jackson. It’s a staple of every happy hour jukebox in the Western hemisphere, and it landed him his first Country Music Award.

In total, he’s released 30 albums during his five decades in music. They helped sell a lifestyle that Buffett has been able to capitalize on. First from merchandise and then he moved on to restaurants and a recording studio. His popular restaurant chains include Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Cafe. He also became a best-selling author, as well, adopted characters from his travels to the Caribbean into his novels. Buffett occasionally writes with his daughter Savannah Jane Buffett. He has three children with his wife Jane Slagsvol.

And even though he turned 74 today, he’s not stopping. He released a new album last month. And he has plans for a tour in the summer of 2021.