Jimmy Buffett, the singer-songwriter who built an empire off his catalog of escapist listening tunes, has died. “Jimmy passed away peacefully on the night of September 1st surrounded by his family, friends, music and dogs,” reads a message posted on his website and social media pages. “He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many.” Buffett was 76 years old.
While a cause of death was not provided, Buffett had canceled a show in Charleston, South Carolina, in May, having been hospitalized upon returning from a vacation in the Bahamas. “Growing old is not for sissies, I promise you,” he said in a statement at the time. Buffett had previously canceled a handful of shows in October 2022 after another unexpected hospitalization.
Jimmy Buffett was best known for his loose, laidback songs, which were laced with mischief, and encouraged a laissez-faire lifestyle with humor and colorful imagery. He built a passionate fan base of self-proclaimed Parrot Heads in the United States, a devotion that helped fuel a massive Margaritaville-branded empire of restaurants, home goods, resorts, retirement communities, a jukebox musical on Broadway, and more. At the time of his death, Forbes had estimated Buffett’s net worth to be $1 billion.
James William “Jimmy” Buffett was born on Christmas Day in 1946 and he grew up around the Gulf Coast of the United States. Buffett’s regional roots and a few years in Key West, Florida, fueled the songs he started writing about lackadaisical characters looking for an escape. He drew significant influence from country music in his twangy instrumentation, which remained a steady presence even as he carved out his distinctive “trop rock” lane later in his career. And, despite its upbeat sensibilities, Buffett’s songwriting often had a downcast edge that attested to the drudgery of everyday life.
Like many musicians trying to make it big, Buffett spent time in Nashville and even worked for a time as a Billboard correspondent for the Music City. He released his debut, Down to Earth, in 1970. The next year, a friend from Nashville, the outlaw country singer Jerry Jeff Walker, brought Buffett to Key West, changing the trajectory of his music, career, and life.
Buffett’s time in the Florida locale, and, in fact, some time away from Key West, ultimately led to his defining song: “I came to Austin a lot in those days. I made it there by getting these college bookings and getting on Willie [Nelson]’s second Fourth of July picnic,” Buffett recalled in the wake of Walker’s death in 2020. “I played Castle Creek many times. I think it was after one of those shows, the next morning I had a hangover and I had to fly home that afternoon. I went to El Rey, a Mexican restaurant on Anderson Lane for lunch. I had a margarita, which helped with the hangover, and in the car on the way to the airport the chorus of a new song started to come to me. I wrote a little more on the plane and finished the rest of ‘Margaritaville’ back in Key West.”
“Margaritaville” featured on Buffett’s 1977 album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, and it reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100—the only song of his career to crack the Top 10. In 1985, Buffett opened his first Margaritaville store in Key West, and he eventually used the name for a chain of restaurants, a cruise line, merchandise, and more. The song itself was entered into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry earlier this year.
Several popular singles followed “Margaritaville,” including “Cheeseburger in Paradise” (also the name of a Buffett restaurant chain), “Volcano,” and “Fins,” which had shark-themed choreography to go with it. In 2003, he joined country singer Alan Jackson for “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” which became a new-millennium keystone for the Parrot Heads’ no-worries ethos.
With consistent, borderline evangelical support from his legion of Parrot Heads, Buffett continued a steady campaign of records and tours from the 1980s well into the 2020s. He was also the author of several best-selling books, including Tales From Margaritaville, Where Is Joe Merchant?, and the memoir A Pirate Looks at Fifty. As an actor, Buffett appeared in Hook, Jurassic World, Billionaire Boys Club, and more. Memorably, he featured in Harmony Korine’s 2019 film about a wayward poet in Key West, The Beach Bum. Buffett has said that his songs “Margaritaville” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty” inspired Korine’s movie.