While Key West has been home to its share of celebrities through the ages, perhaps none are as well known as Jimmy Buffett. His music and his Margaritaville brand are recognized nearly everywhere. And while he is not originally from Key West, this island is where he realized his sound.
Jimmy Buffet was born in Mississippi on Christmas day in 1946. He grew up in Alabama before moving to New Orleans and later Nashville. Unable to make a real breakthrough in the music industry, he made his way to Coconut Grove with friend Jerry Jeff Walker. At the end of 1971, he and Jerry headed to Key West, a turning point in Jimmy Buffett’s life.
In 1972, Buffet moved to Key West, and he called the island home for the next seven years. And while he eventually moved on from the island life, he left a piece of his heart here. He would be back many times throughout the years to visit and to perform.
His Time in Key West
Buffett once described Key West as a writer’s town, not a musician’s town. Of course, this is where he met writers Tom Corcoran, Truman Capote, and Thomas McGuane, the latter of which became his brother-in-law. Jimmy actually ended up subletting Tom McGuane’s apartment at 123 Ann Street, initially making him a Key West resident. These were just some of the people that influenced Jimmy during those early years.
Local businessman and Pier House owner David Wolkowsky hired Jimmy to play at his hotel’s bar, the now famous Chart Room. While performing here, he was often joined by my good friend and marine artist, Vaughn Cochran, playing washboard. As I understand it, David never paid these guys any money. But, he did provided them food and drink and gave them a safe place to be creative.
The Chart Room is also where Jimmy met the heir to the Rival Company (Crockpot, Sunbeam, etc). He was hired on as a first mate on the yacht, Petticoat III. This is what Jimmy did for work during the day in the early years living in Key West to pay the bills. At night he would perform at different locations.
- Howie’s Lounge – It was located at 109 Duval St. This was where the famed Coffee Butler played. Coffee would allow Jimmy to play guitar during his breaks from the piano. Eventually, this led to Jimmy getting his own gigs.
- Crazy Ophelia’s was a coffee house that Jimmy and other musicians would preform at. It was located on Duval Street where Antonia’s Italian Restaurant is now.
- The Bamboo Room is another bar that Jimmy would perform at. It is now home to Mary Ellen’s.
- John Brown’s Bar was another place for Jimmy to play his music. It is now known as the Bull and Whistle.
- The Lantern Inn, now Chico’s Cantina, was yet another spot where Jimmy hung out and sometimes performed at.
- One could also find him playing at Mallory Square on occasion when he was in need of money.
- In later years, Jimmy was also known to make surprise performances at places like Finnegan’s Wake and at his own Margaritaville.
Buffett was not only performing in Key West. He was traveling during these years as well. But, he wrote some of his most famous songs while living in Key West. Many of these songs memorialize other famous Key Wester’s such as Captain Tony Tarracino and reference places that Jimmy frequented such as Faustus’s Food Palace and Blue Heaven. These references and his love of the island has made him the island’s unofficial “Pirate Laureate.”
In fact, I recently read a letter that Jimmy wrote to the Key West Library back in 1984. He would visit the library during the hot summer days when he first came to live on the island. This is where he studied about the island’s history which he would use in his songs. The letter thanked the library for keeping him cool and offered assistance if there was ever a need since it afforded him an “office before I could afford one.”
The Recording Studio in Key West
In 1973, Buffet got a recording contract. He used money from his record sales to buy his first boat. Then, in 1975, he formed the Coral Reefers. The Coral Reefer Band would rehearse in an old gas station on Fleming Street when Jimmy was living in the house next to Louie’s Backyard on Waddell Street. Jimmy’s own mega fans are called Parrotheads. His “Trop Rock” sound calls to people across all walks of life. Each year, the group meets in Key West for their “Meeting of the Minds” which is a five day festival held just after Fantasy Fest.
In 1988, Jimmy Buffett put together his own recordings studio, Shrimpboat Sounds Studio. Located at the Historic Seaport on Elizabeth Street in Key West, this unassuming, small, white, windowless building was once a shrimp storage shed.
The first song that Jimmy recorded at Shrimpboat Sounds Studio was “Hot Water,” and he has since recorded many other songs there as well. But, so have a slew other artists. These include: Zac Brown Band, George Straight, Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, Brian Wilson, Luke Combs, Gras Taylor, Mishka, Billy Currington, Jamey Johnson, Little Feat, Jon Pardi, Seasick Steve, and Kenny Chesney.
Jimmy recently completed a new album, “Equal Strain on All Parts,” which is due out in November. The album was recorded at his Key West studio in 2022 and 2023. It will feature fourteen new songs.
While Jimmy Buffett is famous for his music, that is just a small portion of the empire that he built. He has penned several books, made several appearances on television and film, and even worked in theater. However, he might be most well know for another business ventures, specifically the Margaritaville brand.
The original Margaritaville is a bar, restaurant and store in Key West, Florida. However, there are now hotels, resorts, casinos, cruise ships, retirement communities, and even video games under that moniker all over the United States and Caribbean. And let’s not forget about Land Shark Lager, which Buffet partnered with Anheuser-Busch to create. And these ventures are just the tip of the iceberg!
Speaking of Margaritaville, 280 Margaret Street was the sight of the original Margaritaville store. It was opened in 1985, but when the restaurant opened in 1987 at the current location, the retail store moved with it. David Wolkowsky actually sold Buffett the building that is now Margaritaville. The catch was that David got to keep the rooftop apartment at a fixed rate until his death. It ended up being a great deal for Wolkowsky as he lived until 99 years of age and passed way in September of 2018.
In February 2023, Jimmy Buffett kicked off his “Second Wind Tour” in Key West, Florida. He performed four shows while here, a place that in his own words had given him, “great inspiration and great fun on the streets of this little rock.” While he was here he visited some of his favorite places with his wife, like Louie’s Backyard and the Hogfish Bar and Grill. Sadly, this was to be his last performance on his former island home, as he passed away from complications of Merkel-cell skin cancer at his Sag Harbor, New York home on September 1, 2023.
I read an interview with Jimmy Buffett in Rolling Stone Magazine just the other day. The author asked Buffett, “when you do leave us, how would you like to be remembered?” Jimmy’s answer was, “He had a good time and make a lot of people happy.” I think that he certainly did that.
More About Key West
But, before making your reservations for dinner while in Key West check out our restaurant reviews! I am sure that Fish Tacos won’t be on your list for every night of the week! Feel free to Email Me if you have any questions about Key West!!