We’ve lost a giant of American business — a Buffett whose legacy surely will stand the test of time.
Not Warren Buffett, who remains very much the Oracle of Omaha at 93 years old. But, sigh, Jimmy Buffett, the singer-songwriter of “Margaritaville” fame who died on Friday at the age of 76.
There were always rumors of the two Buffetts being somehow related — they weren’t, but they forged a friendship nonetheless. But even without that blood tie, they had much in common — in particular, a capitalistic genius that made them each insanely wealthy. Perhaps even more important, they each showed in their words and deeds that it was never just about the money.
For those who have never considered themselves part of Jimmy’s legion of fans known as Parrot Heads, here’s the basic gist of the artist’s life and career.
A guy from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi finds success with a tropics-meets-country/pop style of music that’s easy on the ears and invites people to sing along. But he finds even greater success by turning that brand — and Jimmy Buffett was a brand long before marketeers spoke in such terms — into a merchandising and lifestyle empire.
“Margaritaville” was more than a song. It became a restaurant chain, a hotel chain, even a 55-and-older residential complex. And as his business empire grew, Jimmy also never stopped hitting the road to play dozens of concerts in any given year, itself no small money-making operation. Heck, the man even had a Broadway musical to his name, although it didn’t prove quite the smash hit.
It all added up big time from a dollars-and-cents perspective. Buffett’s net worth was $1 billion, according to Forbes. Sure, there are artists and celebrities who have made more money, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Jimmy did all this without being much of a hit maker — in fact, his only Top 10 hit was “Margaritaville,” a song that dates from all the way back to 1977.
Again, it was about building a brand — and constantly feeding and growing it.
And yet, underlying that brand, as goofily hedonistic as it became, was Jimmy’s real talent as a singer-songwriter. At its best, his music wasn’t just easy on the ears; it was, at turns, clever, soulful, witty and joyous. I say this as someone who listened to a lot of Jimmy — not just because I once resided in Jimmy’s beloved Florida (he lived in Key West in his formative days and later had a house in Palm Beach), but also because I also covered him while working as a pop-music critic for about a decade at the Palm Beach Post.
If you listen — I mean really listen — to some of Jimmy’s most popular tunes you’ll find a man in love with a good narrative: Think of the sad-sack story behind “Margaritaville,” with its tale of a guy searching for his “long lost shaker of salt.” But I also relish some of the lesser-known Jimmy. A personal favorite: “The Night I Painted the Sky,” a song about the miracle that is a summer fireworks display.
The point is there was always a “there” there with Jimmy Buffett. The brand came from a true and honest place. I think the Parrot Heads always have known that and loved him all the more for it.
Not that Buffett minded the money he made from his brand. He admitted as much on one of the occasions I got to interview him (and he was always a very gracious interview, unlike so many celebrities I’ve come across). But when I challenged him that his carefree, sea-loving lifestyle could only come about because of his riches, he countered that wasn’t really the case.
“Well, if I took the money out of the equation, I would still be happy,” he told me in that 1998 interview. “I’d be running a boat somewhere if I hadn’t been lucky enough to go this way.”
In that sense, Jimmy Buffett wasn’t much different from Warren Buffett, who has lived in the same modest Omaha home for decades and who visits a local barber for $18 haircuts. Sometimes financial genius and humility go hand in hand.
It’s a lesson I think a few other billionaires could learn. In the meanwhile, rest in peace, Jimmy.