John Bartus

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John Bartus  …playing music is not a bad life

When John Bartus was young, his family moved to Florida. His father worked for NASA as a launch team leader on the Saturn Rocket program. John enjoyed growing up with the Gemini and Apollo space programs. The family moved to South Carolina as the Apollo program shut down.

In 1978, during summer camp, he was exposed to an acoustic and electric guitar entertainer. He was overwhelmed and decided that his life would include a guitar. He attended the University of South Carolina, studying marine biology.

In the 80s, South Carolina was mostly beach music and Southern rock but he wasn’t attracted to either. He was more a singer songwriter fan – such as  Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and Jimmy Buffett.

He and Sally Foster (a Key Wester) began performing, touring throughout the Southeast. Sally was a born entertainer and really connected – “she could master any audience”. In February 1984, they had a gig at the old Holiday Inn in Marathon, and John says it turned into “no reason to leave.”  They became the house band at the hotel and continued to get gigs. In 1986, he decided to go out on his own at another hotel and later joined Freddie Bye at the Brass Monkey.

From the late 80s through current day, Bartus has played music in the Keys. Bartus says he has performed over 10,000 gigs since he arrived. He is a prolific songwriter with some very unique music. John recorded a couple of live solo albums of original music, and one live album, Storm Watch, with a band. One of his favorites was titled, Keys Disease, which has been re-released after 10 years with four of new tracks. His latest recording, After the Storm, was released after Hurricane Irma and celebrates his life near the ocean.

John Bartus tell stories with his original music:

Song “Keys Disease was about a lawyer friend who decided he didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. He quit, came to the Keys 40 years ago, and is still here.

Song “Velvet Elvis” was based on a late night stop at a donut shop in Homestead, FL, pre-Andrew 1992. It was like stepping backin in 1957 with customers drinking coffee, eating donuts, and smoking cigarettes – the only thing missing was a painting of Elvis on black velvet.

Song “Little Stages” is an autobiographical – about a four decade long career playing music, starting with dreams of grandeur and it doesn’t work out the way you wanted it but the way it works out isn’t so bad.

After Islamorada incorporated in 1997, Marathon felt they would be better off incorporating – the vote was over a 2 to1 vote. With a population of 8,500, they are the second largest incorporated city in the Keys. John was coaxed by a good friend to run for the first ever city council. He served six years, until term limited out. He was mayor twice during those years. He ran again in 2016 was mayor twice again and term limited again in 2022. He was president and chairman of the board for the local chamber of commerce for over eight years. John says he enjoys helping to promote and protect our special lifestyle.

The late saxophonist Clarence Clemmons, of Bruce Springsteen’s famous E-Street Band, would visit Marathon often. He fished with local backcountry guide Diego Cordova who also had a band and often played at the Marathon Seafood Festival. Bartus was waiting to play the festival, and Diego had just finished. He introduced Clemmons to Bartus who still had his longish hair and was in his first term as mayor. Clarence looked at John and said, “So, you’re a musician.” John said, “Yes.” Clarence went on, “…and you’re the Mayor?” John said yes again. Clarence looked at them both and said “This is a f…ing cool town.”

Bartus says he has gone from a touring musician to an inspired Keys songwriter, living his dream in the American Caribbean, with no retirement plan at all. With musicians, it’s not a matter of choice. Someone once said if you want to be a musician, you should probably do something else. If you had to be a musician, it’s not a bad life.

The songwriting, performaning, and recording of your music is hard work but fun. With today’s streaming services, the sales and revenue for a musician has diminished to almost nothing. Many visitors still purchase a CD as a souvenir of their visit. John frequently tells his audience, “Tell Alexa to play John Bartus as you are leaving your home. After it plays my entire catalog, and I will make about 75 cents.”


Two Former Mayors, John Bartus of Marathon, and Craig Cates, Mayor of Key West

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