Internationally acclaimed singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who passed away Sept. 1 at age 76, is being remembered and honored in Key West, the island where he developed the tropical mystique that flavored his music throughout his life.
Jimmy Buffett performs during a February 2023 concert in Key West — one of four that kicked off his “Second Wind” tour on the island where he developed his signature sound. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)
Jimmy discovered Key West in the early 1970s and the island’s influence is widely credited with inspiring many of his most enduring songs, including his best-known hit “Margaritaville.”
“Actually ‘Margaritaville’ became an iconic anthem for the city of Key West; everybody equates that song with our city,” said Key West City Commissioner Clayton Lopez after Jimmy’s death. “I mean, when you say Margaritaville, you’re talking about the city of Key West.”
Upon moving to the island, Jimmy summed up his passion for his new surroundings by writing “I Have Found Me a Home,” with lyrics that describe riding his old red bike to “the bars and the beaches of my town.” Released in 1973, it includes the simple but heartfelt line, “You can have the rest of everything I own, ’cause I have found me a home.”
As well as being Jimmy’s home during some of his most productive years, Key West — and its characters, cheerfully loony atmosphere and laidback lifestyle — are referenced repeatedly in his lyrics.
His songs recall larger-than-life residents including the late Captain Tony Tarracino, an offbeat former mayor and bar owner featured in “Last Mango in Paris,” and the late gentleman smuggler Phil Clark, whose real-life exploits unfold in “A Pirate Looks at 40.”
They also memorialize Key West locales like Fausto’s Food Palace, the Blue Heaven restaurant, and legendary bars Captain Tony’s and the Chart Room.
Meagan Bryon of Hoboken, New Jersey, places a “lost shaker of salt” at an impromptu memorial for Jimmy Buffett outside Jimmy’s Shrimpboat Sound recording studio in Key West. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)
In fact, before he gained lasting fame and pioneered the musical genre now called “trop rock,” Jimmy sometimes sang and played guitar at the latter spots, and at the long-gone Full Moon Saloon where ’70s renegades and visiting celebrities shared drinks and stories.
In the mid-1980s Jimmy founded the Margaritaville Store in Key West’s Lands End Village. What began as a welcoming yet ramshackle waterfront enterprise grew into an empire.
The store is now located beside his original Margaritaville Café on Key West’s Duval Street, while his unmarked recording studio, Shrimpboat Sound, stands near the old shrimp docks.
After Jimmy’s death was announced, fans adorned both places with tributes ranging from flowers and notes to saltshakers (a nod to “Margaritaville’s” lyrics about a “lost shaker of salt”).
In addition, thousands of Florida Keys residents and visitors staged a procession on Duval Street to honor the beloved entertainer. Organized by Key West locals Paul Menta and Jordan Upchurch, the event featured strolling musicians, people carrying large photos of Jimmy, and the camaraderie found at his typically sold-out concerts.
Participants traveled up Duval to the Margaritaville Store and Café, where they sang “Margaritaville” led by Keys songwriter/musician Howard Livingston.
Singer/songwriter Howard Livingston (left) and Buffett tribute march co-organizer Paul Menta (right) lead march participants in singing Jimmy’s iconic hit “Margaritaville.” (Photo by Rob O’Neal)
“Margaritaville is totally right here in Key West and Jimmy put it on the map,” said Howard, who has opened shows for him. “Ask any person walking down the street here how they wound up here, and they’ll mention Jimmy Buffett.”
Fittingly, the island has long been a mecca for his Parrot Head fans, named for the offbeat tropical parrot caps and other headgear they tend to wear at concerts.
In 2011 Jimmy gave a surprise performance during their then-annual gathering in Key West. From a stage on Duval outside the Margaritaville enclave, he and his Coral Reefer Band played a 15-song set for the Parrot Heads lining the street.
By then Jimmy had lived elsewhere for many years, but he interspersed the songs with commentary and memories that reflected his abiding affection for the island.
“I’ve had great inspiration and great fun on the streets of this little rock,” he said, “and I appreciate it very much.”
Jimmy Buffett’s final Key West performances took place in February 2023, when he launched his “Second Wind Tour” with four spectacular shows on the island where he developed his signature sound.
“Jimmy always called Key West home,” said Clayton. “No matter wherever else he built a house, or wherever he decided to reside for the moment, Key West was always home.”