Memories of Margaritaville
Everyone remembers that first Jimmy Buffett song. We all thought Jimmy would live forever. The music and those memories will live forever.
Since 2012, I have interviewed over 155 musicians in Key West for my Soul of Key West books. I tried to present interesting facts and stories from all of them. Most of the interesting stories are from older Key West musicians and their early recollections and experiences with Jimmy Buffett – before the SS Margaritaville took sail. Most of the older ones in town know who the “Woman Goin’ Crazy on Caroline Street” was.
One of Jimmy Buffett’s first music opportunities in Key West came after befriending Coffee Butler who was by far the biggest star in town at Howie’s Lounge. Jimmy had been in town a few weeks, and Coffee liked the “new kid” and wanted to help. Jimmy asked if he could play his guitar for tips on Coffee’s breaks and Coffee agreed. Later, Jimmy got his own gigs at Howie’s Lounge on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. David Wegman was living in an upstairs apartment (must have been great music) and painted a poster for Howie’s new schedule.
It’s hard to visualize Jimmy Buffett playing for tips in a small club when he now sells out 35,000 seat stadiums in minutes. As irony would have it, Jimmy Buffett just performed for the first time at the Coffee Butler Amphitheater. I wish Coffee had been around to open for him.
Gary Zimmerman lived downstairs from Buffett’s apartment, near Louie’s Backyard, for over a year. They played music together quite often at John Young’s coffee house, Crazy Ophelia’s (currently Antonia’s). It was a hang-out for local musicians.
Sometimes they played for tips at the Bamboo Room, a sailor’s bar on Applerouth Lane (currently Mary Ellen’s). The problem was most of the sailors would buy a round for the band instead of cash tip. The beer was appreciated but they really needed money.
Gary played with a group, that sometimes-included Jimmy Buffet, at John Brown’s Bar (currently the Bull and Whistle). Greg “Fingers” Taylor had just arrived in town and soon joined in singing and playing. They would rehearse at Gary’s apartment together. Gary remembered Jimmy was traveling the college circuit and was often out of town for a weekend. Buffett started writing music while he lived upstairs and would frequently come to Gary’s practice sessions and try out new songs. One day, Jimmy had them help with a new song, “They Don’t Dance Like Carmen No More” and other music that became Jimmy’s first big studio hit, “White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean” which was released in June 1973 by Dunhill/ABC Records.
Gary also remembered Buffett getting his first big check and driving up to the apartment in a brand new cargo van with a new blender, stereo, television, and a toaster oven. He helped Jimmy carry all the stuff upstairs. It was like Christmas.
Long time Key West musician Din Allen recalled an embarrassing musical moment while performing with Jimmy Buffett, who returned to Key West in the 80’s from time to time to blow off steam or just get away. He would show up on Caroline Street and pack a venue. One time he sat in with the Survivors at the Reach Resort. They never really knew his music. Buffet called for “Margaritaville” and the band started playing. Buffet looked over at Din and said “No, that’s ‘Changes in Latitude.” Din was playing the wrong song for Jimmy Buffet.
One other time Jimmy Buffett was in town recording at Dan Simpson’s Private Ear Studio. He was recording demos of “The Last Mango In Paris” and “Floridays”. Later that day Dan was gigging at the Full Moon Saloon with Bill Blue and the Nervous Guys. Jimmy Buffet had agreed to come by and play a few songs. The word got out on the Coconut Telegraph and the place was packed. It was Elvis’s birthday so Buffet suggested they do some Elvis. No one knew what they were doing, no one knew the music that Buffett called and it sounded really bad. No matter, the audience went wild after every song because it was Jimmy Buffett. All the musicians thought it was horrible. Dan’s moral to this story is when people get famous the fans some time forget about the music and it becomes more about the fame.
There was a comment in a book about the 1970’s Key West writers Tom McGuane, Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Harrison, and Shel Silverstein that stated they were all “chasing Hemingway’s ghost.” Key West musician/songwriter, Scott Kirby feels Jimmy Buffett, to a certain extent, may have also been ‘Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost’ (2017 Scott Kirby album). Buffett created a whole genre of music that touches people from all parts of the country who may be a little stressed out, living in an unfriendly climate, or far away from sand and water, and long for something warm, tropical, and relaxing.
One day in the early 1990’s, Scott was helping Russ Kunkel and Jimmy Buffett at Buffett’s Shrimpboat Sound Studio. Jimmy decided to play at Margaritaville that night, as he sometimes does when he is in town. After the show, Buffett wanted to visit the new Irish bar in town, Finnegan’s Wake, for a nightcap. While having a drink, Marie, a lovely young Irish bartender asked “Mr. Buffett, would you give us the honor of professing a song in our little Irish pub?” How could he say no? It’s now about 2:00 am. The small stage was near the front door. Jimmy grabbed an acoustical guitar, leaning against the wall, and began to play and sing James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”. Just at that moment, four tourists walked in the front door. One of the women looked at the stage, did a double take, and nearly collapsed, putting her hand over her mouth. Just stopping in for a late-night drink at a “little Irish pub” and seeing Jimmy Buffett on stage – only in Key West.
When Gary Hempsey arrived in Key West, he was oblivious to Trop Rock and had no clue who Jimmy Buffett was. When he started playing at Capt. Tony’s, people requested all kinds of stuff so he listened and learned. One day, he played the famous Grateful Dead song, “Uncle John’s Band”, and someone came up afterwards and said they loved that great Buffett song (Jimmy covered it on the 1994 Fruitcakes album). Hempsey became a fan over time and now plays a good selection of Buffett’s music. He says, “Buffett really did put this place on the map. Fast forward to today, the music scene has evolved so much and can support rockabilly jam bands, country, and new age. It’s just astounding”.
Key West is a special place with a music scene like nowhere else in the country and possibly the world. Today, music permeates Key West, right down to the coral rock. The soul of Key West doesn’t come from a certain type of music or a particular musician – it oozes from every pore of the city’s musical skin. Music provides the rhythm of this paradise and adds a joyous relief to vacationers that seek a mythical Margaritaville and discover a very real “Music Island.”