The Story Behind the Song "Margaritaville" by Jimmy Buffett

Updated on September 4, 2019
Kaili Bisson profile image

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2018 are stuck in her head.

Jimmy Buffett performing at Clemson University, February 25, 1977.
Jimmy Buffett performing at Clemson University, February 25, 1977. | Source

This fabulous ditty, released on Valentine's Day in 1977, was a career-defining smash for Buffett and has become synonymous with good times and warm weather. The Margaritaville state of mind has gone on to influence the development of restaurants, resorts, a Broadway show and even a retirement community.

Who Is Jimmy Buffett?

James William Buffett was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi on December 25, 1946. Jimmy was the only boy in a family of three children, and he spent his early years in Mobile, Alabama. His boyhood experiences on the Alabama shoreline proved to be a huge influence on his music later on in life, with the ocean, beach, fishing and sailing all being common themes in his songs. Jimmy's parents wanted him to become either a priest or a naval officer, and he attended parochial schools and an all-male prep school.

In 1965, Jimmy enrolled at Auburn University in Alabama. Though he had learned to play the trombone while in grade school, he had never picked up a guitar. When he noticed how a school chum at Auburn was getting a lot of attention from coeds because of his guitar, Jimmy immediately asked his friend to teach him how to play. Unfortunately, his new-found interest in music and girls caused him to lose focus on his studies, and he failed out of Auburn in the spring of 1966. In order to avoid the draft, he enrolled in Pearl River College in Poplarville, Mississippi that fall and began playing music to pay for his studies.

Just over an hour from Poplarville lay New Orleans, where Jimmy worked as a street musician, immersing himself in the French Quarter hippie scene. He and two friends also had a band called The Upstairs Alliance that played the club circuit along the coast. Having learned a thing or two at Auburn about keeping his grades up, he managed to do just that while at Pearl River, and he eventually transferred to the University of Mississippi in 1969, where he completed a bachelor's degree in history. Figuring that Uncle Sam would come calling any time soon, he took the preemptive step of applying for Officer Candidate school, but his medical exam turned up a previously undiagnosed peptic ulcer. Jimmy had his pass to avoid Vietnam and focus on music.

"Wastin' away again in Margaritaville

Searching for my lost shaker of salt

Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame

But I know it’s my own damn fault."

From his earliest days as a performer at Mobile's Admiral's Club, Jimmy had an innate ability to connect with his audience. His folksy, easy manner drew a fiercely loyal fan base—the earliest "Parrotheads." Jimmy wrote and recorded songs in a studio owned by songwriter Milton Brown of "Every Which Way But Loose" fame. Barnaby Records, created in 1970 by singer Andy Williams, signed Jimmy to a contract, and in 1970, he released his first LP called Down To Earth, which sold fewer than 400 copies. Barnaby Records feared releasing another money-loser, but they needn't have feared for long. The master tapes for Jimmy's second LP, High Cumberland Jubilee, had been misplaced, so a second record was not released.

Stressed about these musical setbacks and needing to get away, Jimmy headed to Key West, Florida in November 1971 with his good friend Jerry Jeff Walker. Their first stop was the Chart Room Bar at the Pier House Motel. The bartender on duty was a good friend of Jerry Jeff's, and he gave Jimmy his first beer on the house. Jimmy loved the vibe of the bar, and began playing for drinks in the bar for an assortment of characters that included smugglers, beachcombers and treasure divers. He later took a job as a mate on a fishing boat to pay the bills, all the while working on his music and honing his beach-bum persona.

Jimmy Buffett and Special Guest JJ Watt of the Houston Texans Performing "Margaritaville"

In 1973, ABC-Dunhill Records signed Jimmy to a contract, and he recorded his second debut album, A White Sports Coat and a Pink Crustacean, at outlaw-country artist "Tompall" Glaser's Nashville studio. Released on June 4, 1973, the LP made it to the #43 spot on Billboard's country chart, and contained what has become one of Jimmy's most popular songs, "Why Don't We Get Drunk." His next release, Living and Dying in ¾ Time, contained his first hit. "Come Monday" reached the #30 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the #3 spot on the Easy Listening/Adult Contemporary chart.

As odd as it might seem now, Jimmy struggled to find a niche, as his music didn't precisely fit into any one category. His two subsequent LPs, 1974's A1A and 1976's Havana Daydreamin', failed to produce any singles. In 1976, Jimmy had been inspired to write "Margaritaville" after sampling his first margarita (followed by a few more) at Lung's Cocina del Sur restaurant in Austin, Texas. Later that night, while staying at a friend's house in order to save money, he sat out on the deck and wrote most of the lyrics, putting the finishing touches on the song when he returned to Key West. The song appeared on the album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, which was released in January of 1977. Jimmy and the LP both started to get some real traction when he and his Coral Reefer Band opened for The Eagles on a number of dates in March and July of 1977 during The Eagles' Hotel California tour. Margaritaville had been released as a single in February, and it flew up the charts through the summer, peaking at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the coveted #1 spot on the Easy Listening chart.

Jimmy Buffett performing a USO concert aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in January 2008.
Jimmy Buffett performing a USO concert aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in January 2008. | Source

Margaritaville: The Brand

"Margaritaville" remains one of Buffett's most popular songs, and his loyal followers, known as Parrotheads, show up at his concerts dressed in silly hats and loud Hawaiian shirts and sing along to all of the songs they know and love so well. During the '80s, Buffet was making way more money from tours than he was from selling records. His shows are like one big party, and his rapport with his audiences has only grown with time. In 1985, Jimmy began leveraging the Margaritaville "brand" by opening a retail store in Key West, followed a couple of years later by a cafe.

He hasn't looked back. Margaritaville Records was launched in 1993, followed by Margaritaville Brewing (brewers of LandShark Lager) in 2006. There are Margaritaville restaurants everywhere, including aboard five of Norwegian Cruise line's ships. You can buy a Margaritaville Frozen Concoction maker, and assorted other merchandise and furnishings. There are Margaritaville resorts in Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida, and the Cayman Islands. And now, Jimmy's Margaritaville Holdings has partnered with Minto Communities to construct a $1B dollar retirement community in Daytona Beach, the first of his active adult communities planned for seaside locales.

Five Musical Facts

  1. After he graduated from college, Jimmy worked as a writer for Billboard magazine, a gig that turned out to be his only 9-to-5 job ever. He was the one who penned the article regarding the separation of bluegrass stars Flatt and Scruggs, big news at that time.
  2. The master tapes for Jimmy's 1971 LP High Cumberland Jubilee were ultimately rediscovered after Jimmy began making a name for himself, and the "lost album" was finally released in 1976 by Barnaby Records.
  3. Long an avid flyer, Jimmy's plane was once mistaken for a drug-smuggling plane by Jamaican police, who shot at him. His passenger that day in January 1996 was none other than Bono of U2.
  4. Jimmy has tried his hand at acting, appearing in guest spots in several movies and TV shows, including Repo Man, Congo, Jurassic World, and Hawaii Five-O. He also produced the movie Hoot and composed the music and lyrics for the movie Arachnophobia. He is also a successful author, having penned three number-one best sellers as well as co-authoring two children's books.
  5. In August 2000, Jimmy and his Coral Reefer Band played a surprise concert on the lawn of the White House. Staffers smuggled Jimmy and the band onto the grounds to play for then-President Bill Clinton. The concert was a belated birthday gift from Clinton's Chief of Staff, John Podesta.

© 2019 Kaili Bisson

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    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      8 days ago from Canada

      Hi Dianna, you are so welcome!

      Here too, when one of his concerts was announced, you had to jump on it or miss out. He still does a good number of shows a year.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      8 days ago from Canada

      Hi Flourish and thank you.

      Agreed, I too have this image in my mind of old folks wandering around with drinks in their hands, where the "uniform" consists of colorful Hawaiian-type shirts and flip-flops. Sign me up!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      8 days ago

      He was such an icon in Cincinnati! The concerts were sold out in advance every time. Thank you for sharing the background on this entertaining singer and musician.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      2 weeks ago from USA

      This is chock full of interesting details. I love the Bono story. It also seems really strange to think of old folks in a Margaritaville retirement community drinking and napping.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      2 weeks ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Agree about 'Come Monday,' that's probably the best of them. I mean as a casual fan. He probably could have went more for that sort of thing, like a Neil Diamond or something, but one can't really say he's made bad decisions in the business sense of it all.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      2 weeks ago from Canada

      Hi Pamela. you are most welcome.

      I love the story about he and Bono being shot at by Jamaican authorities; I hadn't heard that one before. He even turned the episode into a song!

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      2 weeks ago from Canada

      Hi Wesman,

      His songwriting is great, and some of the lyrics are very moving. I just love "Come Monday."

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      2 weeks ago from Canada

      Hi John,

      We're fans in this household too, and his CDs are a regular part of the "summer mix." He is truly great in a live performance.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      2 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      I didn't know all this information on Buffett. I hate lunch or dinner at Margaritaville in Key West several years ago. I always liked the song. Thanks for providing all this interesting information.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      2 weeks ago from Kaufman, Texas

      I probably know a total of five to seven songs, but I know those by heart, and will sing them to the best of my ability, and while tears pour from my otherwise soulless eyes.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      2 weeks ago from Queensland Australia

      Kaili, on the other hand, I am a huge Jimmy Buffet fan. I love his easy listening fun (semi reggae style)..... and have a number of his albums. One of the world’s great entertainers.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      2 weeks ago from Canada

      Thanks Mel!

      See? We're all Parrotheads after all ;-)

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      2 weeks ago from San Diego California

      I can´t say I´m a big Buffet fan, though I will take a turn at the buffet, and wash it down with a Margarita, if there is no beer available. You have told a wonderful rags to riches story here. Great article.

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