a legend never dies
Ken Hoffman recalls the most memorable moments he shared with the legend Jimmy Buffett
The first time I met Jimmy Buffett was back when I started working for a newspaper in Florida. I was invited to interview him during his break from putting the finishing touches on an album at Criteria Studios in Miami.
Midway through our conversation, I had this one saved up, I asked him, “Who puts mustard on a hamburger?”
He looked at me funny and said, “Uh, not me, why would you ask that?” I said, “That’s what you say in 'Cheeseburger in Paradise.' You say mustard.” I even brought an album that had the lyrics on the back.
“Medium rare with mustard be nice.”
Ken alerts Jimmy to a wrong recipe
It says right here, “A big warm bun and a huge hunk of meat. Heaven on Earth with an onion slice. I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and french-fried potatoes, big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer, medium rare with mustard be nice.”
Buffett grabbed the album. Let me see that. He said, “They got the words wrong. I’m saying medium rare with Muenster’d be nice. Muenster cheese.”
It makes sense. If Buffett left off the Muenster, the song would be about a Hamburger in Paradise. It ain’t a cheeseburger without cheese. He contacted the record company and they changed the lyrics on the album. That was my contribution to Parrothead World.
Farewell to the Pirate
Jimmy Buffett died late Friday, September 1 at his home, surrounded by family, friends and beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Dogs. He was 76. I remember doing a video chat with Buffett and I could hardly make out what he was saying because his dogs were licking his face practically the whole time.
The last video Buffett released, only two days before his death, was “Like My Dog” on TikTok. The video showed Buffett playing and smooching his pups to a song he performs written by Harley Allen and Scotty Emerick.
I got to know Jimmy Buffett over the past couple of decades through Coleman Sisson, the general manager of Buffett’s Radio Margaritaville. Sisson was in charge of Buffett’s Sirius satellite channel and backstage during the broadcast of every concert Buffett did.
There was the time Sisson invited me to Buffett’s rehearsals before one of his annual tours. The practice sessions took place in a warehouse outside of Austin. The building was so big that the crew had to ride bicycles to get around. Working inside that building were 11 members of Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, the lighting crew, six video technicians, four sound people, two extremely large security guys, tour manager, accountant, IT wizard, Radio Margaritaville hosts, stage decorator, clothes coordinator, and the person who runs onstage to hand guitars to Buffett.
And one boss: Jimmy Buffett.
Jimmy reveals his bucket list gig to Ken
Another time Sisson asked me, would I like to stand at the edge of the stage and watch 25,000 people put their hands on their heads and pretend they’re sharks bobbing “fins to the left, fins to the right?” I would love that. Fins up!
I peeked out from behind a potted palm tree and watched a packed audience dance in the palms of Buffett’s hands. Audiences loved Jimmy Buffett as much as he loved them back.
I asked him, “Is there anything or any place left on your bucket list? He said there was a military base in Antarctica that the soldiers named Margaritaville South. He wanted to play the bottom of Earth.
I used to tell people, I’m lucky. I know a couple of famous people and one of them is Jimmy Buffett. Pretty cool. I dragged many people to his shows who invariably said the same thing on the way to the parking lot. “I didn’t think I knew any of his songs but I knew most of them! I just didn’t know that was Jimmy Buffett!
The secret of Jimmy's shows — and shirts
Sometimes friends will go around the group, who’s the singer or group you’ve seen the most. Mine is easy, Jimmy Buffett and it’s triple or quadruple whoever’s No. 2. His shows were a combination of rock ‘n’ roll, frat party, Harry Belafonte, and vaudeville. He didn’t just sing, he told stories that rhymed. I’m glad that I never missed a concert when he came to town.
Buffett was a hotel, resort and casino owner, restaurant owner, clothing store owner, genius businessman and one-man billion-dollar industry. But more than anything else, he was an entertainer.
Buffett concerts were laid back nights where many fans dressed in outlandish island costumes. Middle-aged fans let loose with coconut bras and grass skirts. Women dressed like hula girls. It was like Caribbean Halloween for everybody at a Buffett concert … except Buffett, who performed in a tight-fitting t-shirt, shorts and bare feet.
I was introduced to Helen Hiatt who designed Buffett’s stage outfits for the past two decades.
First question: Jimmy Buffett has someone who designs his stage outfits? He dresses like 10-year-old Timmy at summer camp.
Helen Hiatt: I buy his T-shirts from a store in Palm Beach. They’re adult large. I dye them myself. Jimmy doesn’t like them baggy, so when he changes guitars, his T-shirt doesn’t move around and look sloppy. The T-shirts are 100-percent cotton. The neck and arm holes are very tight so he’s comfortable. I get him five T-shirts before each tour. After a concert, I just send them to a local Fluff ‘n’ Dry laundry service to have them cleaned.”
Hiatt also has designed stage outfits for Janet Jackson, Prince, and Paula Abdul. She won an Emmy Award for designing outfits for Cher. I’m guessing that dressing Cher involved more than buying five T-shirts from a surf shop in Palm Beach.
Jimmy jams with J.J. in Houston
One show I approached Houston Texans superstar J.J. Watt hanging out backstage at a Buffett concert. Watt swapped a No. 99 Texans jersey for a Buffett souvenir T-shirt (good trade). Later that night, Watt came onstage and played bongos with one hand during Buffett’s biggest hit, Margaritaville. Watt’s other hand held a beer. The crowd, as they say, went wild.
“I asked Watt, what are you doing here?” He said, “Same as everybody else. I love Jimmy Buffett. Everybody loves Jimmy Buffett.”
Jimmy faces off with Ken
One show, I met Buffett backstage before the concert in his dressing trailer. It was about an hour before showtime and Buffett had just gotten up from his nap. Yeah, that’s a pro pacing himself. I challenged him to answer 10 Jimmy Buffett trivia questions. He said, let’s do it.
I remember a few of the questions.
One of your early hit albums was titled A1A. If you got on A1A in Key West and drove its entire length, where would you wind up?
His answer: Fernandina Beach, Florida. (Correct)
Only seven authors have made No. 1 on both the New York Times best-seller list for fiction and non-fiction. Name four of them.
His answer: Ernest Hemingway, Irving Wallace, Dr. Suess … and me! (Correct. The other three are Mitch Albom, John Steinbeck and Willian Styron).
You graduated Southern Mississippi University in 1969. Today the nickname for Southern Miss athletic teams is Golden Eagles. What was their nickname when you went there?
His answer: I don’t know. (Ohhhh sorry, we were looking for The Southerners.)
Buffett scored seven out of 10 right. He said, “That’s a B, I’ll take it.”
I told him, “Maybe that’s a B at Southern Mississippi, but everywhere else your report card would say C.”
He said, “I’ll still take it.”
A few years ago, I wrote a column trying to answer the question: which performer has played in front of the most fans ever in Houston?
Over the years, since the early ‘70s, Buffett played venues ranging from Liberty Hall to Southern Star Amphitheater to Compaq Center to Minute Maid Park to the Astrodome to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. He played somewhere in Houston practically every year.
So after crunching all the attendance figures I could find, this was my bottom line: Jimmy Buffett.
Curious side note: every show for 50 years, the act was billed as Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band. Except one. When Buffett performed at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 1988, organizers didn’t want the word “Reefer” anywhere near the Astrodome. So for one night only, the act was called Jimmy Buffett and the Cheap Vacation Band.
Jerry MacDonald is the president and CEO of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, one of the most successful outdoor concert venues in the world.
MacDonald: “Jimmy was an all-time favorite artist of the pavilion. We could count on him playing almost every time he toured and he was always a highlight of our concert season. He played our opening season in 1990 and played the venue 25 times, the most of any artist. No one drew the range of fans that he did. Fans from 10 to 90 came to his shows. His contract rider encouraged tailgating areas for his fans to party before his shows. I’ve been in the concert business and hosting his shows for 48 years and there was nothing like a Jimmy Buffett concert.”
Ken's last chat with Jimmy was on a boat
The last time I spoke with Buffett was a few months ago. Coleman Sisson and I were on Coleman’s boat on Lake Conroe. Coleman was teaching me how to fish when Buffett popped up on the boat’s video screen. (Fitting.) We talked for about a half-hour. Buffett, who had a recent illness and was forced to cancel his tour, was itching to get back onstage.
Except for a brief guest spot on a one-offshow featuring his guitarist Mac McAnally, Buffett never returned to performing. He was a beloved original who will be missed dearly. He has passed away, but like he says in his song "Last Mango in Paris," a legend never dies.