Jimmy Buffett was in Austin, Texas, some 40 years ago, visiting a woman he was dating, and “there was the potential for a breakup,” he recalls.
After a couple of margaritas and a few tears, she drove him to the airport so he could catch a plane back home to Key West, Fla. At the gate, he got out his guitar and found the hook and the chorus for a new song.
“I was going to call it ‘Wasting Away Again in Austin, Texasville,’” he said.
That was until he came up with a far better title after he got on the plane. It took him all of six minutes to write his famous song.
Buffett played “Margaritaville” in public for the first time a few days later at a restaurant called Logan’s Lobster House. During the late ’70s, Key West attracted a literary crowd, and there sitting at the front table were Truman Capote, novelist Dotson Rader, and poet John Malcolm Brinnin. Everyone was singing by the end of the song, “Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt.”
“And that,” says the jeans-clad 71-year-old, over a couple of drinks, “is when I knew I had something.”
Buffett has toured all over the world on the strength of the song. He has a line of blenders and barbecue sauces, built resorts, casinos and even “Margaritaville” retirement communities, all of which has amassed him a fortune that Forbes put at $550 million in 2016.
The latest addition to his empire is the Broadway musical “Escape to Margaritaville,” which previewed at the Marquis Theatre. Buffett’s not in the show — Paul Alexander Nolan (“Jesus Christ Superstar”) stars as a free-spirited bartender unmoored by love — but his songs are: “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “A Pirate Looks At Forty,” “Come Monday,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk?” and, of course, “Margaritaville.”
Shubert Alley is bracing for an onslaught of Parrotheads. The show is set in the Caribbean.
Buffett may be new to Broadway, but he’s had musical theater in his bones since he was a kid. His mother “was a real Auntie Mame-type character,” who worked in the shipyards of Mobile, Ala., as a union secretary, but in her spare time she “took any part she could get” at the Mobile Community Theater.
She loved to go to New York to see Broadway shows and come back with the original cast recordings, which she played over and over.
“You listened to what your parents listened to back then,” says Buffett.
A big favorite in the Buffett household was “South Pacific.”
Says Buffett: “When we first started rehearsals here, I walked down Broadway from my apartment at Columbus Circle, and two songs were in my head — ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and ‘On Broadway’ by the Drifters. And I thought, ‘My God, I’m doing a Broadway show.’ It’s taken a long time to get here, but we’re here.”
Another of Buffett’s Broadway connection is his friend, Elizabeth Ashley (“Barefoot in the Park,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”). When they met in the early ’70s, Ashley said Buffett was “a cute little guy who played the guitar and was always borrowing money, five bucks here, 10 bucks there. Never paid us back, but we didn’t care because we loved him.”
Ashley later told him, “Honey, you can play wherever you want to, but you gotta get to New York.”
Ashley was responsible for the biggest break of his career: his first appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”
Carson preferred his Vegas crowd — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. and was reluctant to have pop singers on his show back then. But under pressure from his network, NBC, he relented.
One of Ashley’s good friends was Carson’s talent booker, who got Buffett, then charting with “Margaritaville,” on the show.
“I was so nervous, I stayed up watching Carson for two weeks,” says Buffett, “just to see what interested him.”
The producers told him, “Look, you’re just doing a song. But if he happens to wave at you, that means go over to the couch.”
Buffett dedicated his performance that night to his parents, who were celebrating their anniversary.
“It was the biggest boost you could get in show business in those days,” he says.
After his first performance, Buffet appeared 10 more times on the show, including Carson’s final month on air.
Buffett can’t escape the drink that made him famous while reminiscing over pinot noir at Bond 45, across the street from the Marquis.
When restaurant owner Shelly Fireman comes to the table, it’s with an enormous pitcher of Italian margaritas.
“This is in honor of your show,” Fireman says.
Buffett eyes the pitcher, and says, “Well, it’s always five o’clock somewhere, but if I drink that thing I won’t get to my show.”
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