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Jimmy Buffett, Who Leveraged 'Margaritaville' Into an Empire, Dies at 76

His tales of fun in the sun made him a billionaire

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Noam Galai/Getty Images for Escape To Margaritaville

Say the word “Margaritaville” to the legion of Jimmy Buffett's fans and they’re instantly transported into a world of joy, where sun, sand and perhaps one too many rum drinks are celebrated. It’s a state of mind — one carefully curated over decades by the man who created it.

Buffett, 76, died Sept. 1 “surrounded by his family, friends, music and dogs,” said a statement posted on his official website. “He lived his life like a song until the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many.” The statement did not offer details of his death, although Buffett canceled concerts in May because of illness, and later posted on social media that he had been hospitalized.

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Through a combination of catchy Caribbean-influenced songs, savvy business moves and the careful grooming of a wildly supportive audience, Buffett leveraged “Margaritaville” into an empire. It encompassed concert tours, satellite radio and digital content channels, books, restaurants, resorts and more, all celebrating the good-times beach vibes that Buffett represented to his fans. Forbes this year estimated his net worth at $1 billion.

The song that built Buffett’s brand was released in 1977. It is celebrated as a party anthem, but it is surprisingly melancholy. The first verse describes a beach bum’s paradise, with the singer sitting on his porch, playing his guitar while he boils shrimp. But it becomes a song of regret as it goes along, as he makes it clear he’s lost a woman he loves and is drinking to get past the pain. That didn’t stop his army of fans, lovingly known as “Parrot Heads,” from singing every word at the top of their lungs at his concerts and adding chants of “Salt!” between two of the lines.

Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, the album that includes Buffett's one Top 10 hit, “Margaritaville,” featured more cuts flavored by Key West, Florida, and the Caribbean. The hits kept coming over the next few years, including the anthems “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and “Fins.”

Buffett’s concerts turned into beach parties, no matter if they were hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. Even when his album and singles sales declined, Buffett was a popular and reliable live act, especially on summer tours when fans would celebrate with elaborate (and often alcohol-infused) tailgate parties.

After the music success came the business empire. Many musicians have launched restaurants and nightclubs to limited or temporary success, but Buffett’s grew over decades. He launched a store in Key West in 1985, followed soon by restaurants in tourist and beach locales. That eventually led to Margaritaville Holdings, the umbrella company that also includes interests in alcohol, lodging and brand licensing. Buffet even developed a retirement village, Latitude Margaritaville, in Daytona Beach, Florida, that played off the Buffet vibe — a younger, hipper place to retire. “They’re going to have to drag me off that stage or out of the cockpit,” he told AARP in 2021. “I want to be the poster child for the person who could retire but doesn’t.” ​

“He understands his brand, which has a substantial reach,” his friend the billionaire Warren Buffett (who is not related) told The New York Times in 2016. “One of the secrets to his success is that he never really loses any fans.”

Buffett was born on Christmas Day 1946 in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and grew up along the Gulf of Mexico in Mobile, Alabama. His grandfather was a steamship captain and, according to Buffett's website, “the Gulf of Mexico was the doorway to a world of adventure where the characters he heard about in his grandfather's stories were waiting to be discovered.”

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He graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi and began playing music across the South, eventually landing in his beloved Key West. Buffett released his first record, Down to Earth, in 1970. “Come Monday” was a minor hit in 1974, but “Margaritaville” had greater chart life, spending 22 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaking at No. 8.

Buffett’s performances and song choices built his fan base post-”Margaritaville,” and many of those fans mourned his passing and saluted his career on social media.

“A massive hole in humanity has been left by his loss. God’s speed Jimmy and thank you for all the tales,” producer Chris Harrison wrote on Instagram. Former President Bill Clinton posted that Buffett’s music “brought happiness to millions of people. I’ll always be grateful for his kindness, generosity, and great performances through the years, including at the White House in 2000.”

“So goodbye Jimmy. Thanks for your friendship and the songs I will carry in my heart forever. Sail On Sailor,” musician Kenny Chesney, whose songs are also filled with tales of island life, wrote on Facebook.

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