'My teachers called me a daydreamer," Jimmy Buffett wrote in his best-selling memoir, "A Pirate Looks at Fifty." "They would write comments on my report card like, "He seems to live in a fantasy world and prefers that to paying serious attention to serious subject matters that will prepare him for life."
If there was ever a perfect model for not taking life too seriously and dreaming big outside of the box, it's Jimmy Buffet, the popular troubadour who has championed a laid-back lifestyle many of us can only dream about. A cultural phenomenon, a beloved icon, he's carved out a remarkably lucrative career around singing tropical-inflected songs about living the good life and having fun.
"We're still makin' records / We still sing every year / We can still get those fins up, every now and then, / Yeah, we're still here," he sings on the new song "We're Still Here."
Photo courtesy of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center
‘We film and record everything, and our fan base is really into destination shows. The last time we played Maui (right) and the Shell, that’s one of our best- selling videos.’
– Jimmy Buffett
"It's been a long and wonderful road," says Buffett. "I'm grateful that I'm still doing it and that people are still coming to the shows. And I'm grateful that I've come up with a phony baloney excuse to come to Hawaii more often. I kind of think of things and life in 10 year-pieces. And I'm always looking ahead at the next project. It's the old sailing thing, I'm going towards the horizon. It's been a hell of a ride."
Buffett, who turned 62 last Christmas Day, heads to the islands for a concert on Tuesday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's A&B Amphitheater, and for the opening of his new Waikiki restaurant, Jimmy Buffett's at The Beachcomber.
Having fun is paramount and Buffett and his superlative Coral Reefer Band deliver the goods in concert, creating a joyous, carnival atmosphere -Mardi Gras every night.
* Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band, including guest Jake Shimabukuro, play at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's A&B Amphitheater. Tickets are $126, $86, $66 and $56, plus applicable fees, available at the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.maui arts.org.
"The festive, uptempo tune was accented by onstage garb ranging from lampshade hats and Shriners-look outfits to Mardi Gras parade suits," noted a Boston Herald review. "There were air cannons shooting dozens of plastic leis into the crowd. There were also tropical scrims, and there was Buffett himself, uttering nuggets of advice between songs, such as, 'a couple of mortal sins never hurt anybody.' "
"Buffett's show was a blast, a mini-summer vacation with a guy who loves life and likes to share it with hundreds of thousands of people," raved a review of an Atlantic City show. "Backed by 13 talented musicians and dancers, Buffett's performance was inspired, witty, genuine and from the heart."
Around a year ago, Buffett transported his Margaritaville festivities to the deck of aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf.
"It was probably the wildest audience I've played to, 5,000 young American sailors," Buffett reports. "And the admiral had given them permission to drink margaritas on shore leave that night. It was amazing. We wanted to do something for the kids over there. I have a friend who is head of the Pacific Fleet and he arranged the whole thing. I had a ball."
Also last year, he journeyed to Paris performing two shows at the legendary New Morning jazz club to loyal fans who had flown in from all over the world for the intimate gigs.
"I had an apartment in Paris many years ago," he recalls. "I'm basically a Francophile and I live in the French West Indies in the winter. Paris has always been a very inspiring city to me and countless other artists. I used to be a street singer there and I have never really done big shows in Europe. We're going back this year and will probably add a London show. I'm a club singer, I'm a bar singer, that's how I started, and I like to go back to my roots."
Over in England, Buffett made a surprise appearance joining Jack Johnson and G Love at a London Hyde Park concert, performing "A Pirate Looks at Forty."
"I was over for Wimbledon and I knew Jack was going to be there," he notes. "He's a great friend and I'm glad I was some kind of influence on him. It was a great thrill."
Like the Grateful Dead, Buffett managed to build a flourishing career that was largely invisible on the charts and a phenomenon in the amphitheaters, long after hit songs such as "Margaritaville" and popular albums such as "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes." One of the top drawing concert performers in the country with an estimated annual income of more than $40 million from merchandising, record sales, income from his Margaritaville stores and restaurants and a casino, Buffett heads quite an empire.
Translating his music and lifestyle into a successful brand, Buffett's Parrothead fans can stock up on "5 O'Clock Somewhere" clocks, "License To Chill" auto plates, $6 "lost shakers of salt" and even custom Margaritaville rocking chairs.
Fans have also supported Buffett's literary aspirations buying so many of his books including novels, children's stories, a short-story collection, and the travelogue "A Pirate Looks at Fifty," that the popular musician is one of only nine writers to reach the No. 1 spot on both The New York Times' fiction and nonfiction best-seller lists. This august club includes Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and William Styron.
"It was a natural process," says Jimmy about his burgeoning business empire. "One thing I learned along the trail is if you don't take an interest in the business of music then somebody else is going to do it for you, and most of the time they will do it badly. Like it or no, it is a business. The most important thing as it comes along is you remain in touch with what's going on out there, and have enough wisdom to hire great people to run the business."
In recent years, Buffett has successfully marketed "destination" CDs to fans, live recordings from assorted concert venues, including the double CD "Live in Hawaii" taped at the MACC and the Waikiki Shell in 2004.
"With the technology these days we can record and deliver stuff," he explains. "We film and record everything, and our fan base is really into destination shows. The last time we played Maui and the Shell, that's one of our best-selling videos."
Upcoming, a new live acoustic CD, comprising final encore songs performed solo or with Coral Reefer Mac McAnally.
"Last year I fell into doing acoustic songs at the end of every show that don't necessarily make it into the set list," he continues. "I did a different song every night. We put them all together and it sounds really great. It's mostly my stuff and there's a Tom Petty song and a Bruce Cockburn song and an Allan Toussaint song. It's a great thing with my fan base that I don't have to really play the game. All I'm out there to do is to add to people's collection, things I hope they will like. We don't have to compete with radio airplay and record company marketing schemes. We just hope to supply our fans with entertainment."
Primarily focusing on touring and releasing live albums, Buffett was a little surprised when after 30-plus years, he scored a No. 1 song in 2004 (and his first Grammy nomination) singing the duet "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" with country star Alan Jackson.
"I never really focused on trying to have hit records," he says. "I knew my strongest asset was being a live performer, so I concentrated more on that and giving the best bang for the buck, and hopefully people from that would be turned on to the records. I knew I was cultivating a loyal fan base, and maybe I figured one day it would happen."
Buffett subsequently recruited some of the biggest names in country music, including Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Toby Keith and Clint Black, to help out on the album "License to Chill." It debuted at No. 1 on both the pop and country charts.
"I'm very blessed," concludes the popular entertainer. "I worked very hard for many years, but I always had a good time. You don't master a wave the first time. It takes a long time and a lot of hours of dedication to be good at anything. And I was lucky enough to be good at one thing. I'm not the first person to create a career out of escapism. I think it's a necessity, people need it, so I'm very happy to come to town. There's no better thrill than to get on stage and feel the energy of a big crowd."