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A Reason To Smile
There was something quintessentially American about the singer/songwriter/entrepreneur Jimmy Buffett, who passed away yesterday at the age of 76. He was a showman, selling a laid-back vision of life: beaches, cocktails, sunbaked days, and parties after dark. The allure of letting loose and having fun has been a part of our national identity. But so have hard work and seizing opportunities to monetize an idea, which Buffett did with such skill that Forbes estimated his net worth this year at $1 billion.
Buffett’s life followed an arc that exemplified the American Dream. Originally a reporter working for Billboard, he struggled as a young musician to find his voice and make his mark. That changed when he moved to Key West, Florida. He would later say that there “I found a lifestyle, and I knew that whatever I did would have to work around my lifestyle.” And it was this lifestyle — a blend of love for the open sea and the camaraderie of a seaside bar, all infused with music — that drew legions of loyal fans over decades of success.
It’s worth noting that Buffett was not a hitmaker in the traditional sense. Only the song that made him famous, the 1977 “Margaritaville,” reached the pop Top 10. Rather, Buffett exemplified another American philosophy: that you can find your way to fame and even fortune by marching to the beat of your own drum, or if you are so lucky, your own band, the Coral Reefers.
His songs were often fun, full of wordplay (like “Last Mango In Paris”), and meant for singalongs, which his concerts invariably became. He turned the island vibe of his music into successful lines of restaurants, resorts, tequila, and clothing. Buffett was a bestselling author in fiction and nonfiction. He even had a hit Broadway show.
Though he left the hard partying to his youth, Buffett was able to call upon the joyful feeling of an endless summer that inspires the young, and the young at heart. But he also captured the complexities of life, love, and growing older. In a cynical world where the half-life of celebrity can be encompassed in nanosecond news cycles, Buffett endured. He knew who he was and what his fans wanted. They called themselves Parrotheads (a takeoff on the Deadhead fans of The Grateful Dead), and in his music and all that surrounded it, they found community, a vision of life well led, and a reason to smile.
Here’s an early performance of “Margaritaville”:
We also came across an appearance with David Letterman from 40 years ago, which includes an interview and a couple songs in a different style:
Finally, if you want to get a sense of what it was like to be among the Parrotheads, here’s Buffett with “Margaritaville” again at a benefit concert he did after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf in 2010. He was a committed environmentalist.
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