The following is from LIFE’s new special issue Jimmy Buffett: Going Strong in Margaritaville, available at newsstands and online.
Margaritaville. It’s a brand, a business empire, a state of mind. It’s a radio station, a tequila, a state of bliss. But most important, it’s a song.
Too often, the merchandising surrounding Jimmy Buffett’s signature tune has obscured its magic. But strip away the brand. Ignore the frozen Margaritaville Crunchy Pimento Cheese & Shrimp Bites. Forget the T-shirts emblazoned with WOMAN TO BLAME. What’s left is a finely crafted, cheeky but nuanced nugget of genius.
Article in LIFE Magazine: Jimmy Buffett: Hey Margaritaville! A Pirate Looks at 75
The melody of “Margaritaville” floats in on a breeze of Caribbean instrumentation. The vocal is so relaxed it’s practically flat on its back in a hammock. The lyrics evoke both a beach bum’s apathy and a broken heart drowning under a slosh of booze. The song is short, simple, silly, sad, and sublime—and still strong enough to support the enormous mythology surrounding Jimmy Buffett. It’s a heavy task to lay on a four-minute tune that peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1977.
Some of the legends that surround Buffett are false (he insists, for example, that he never smuggled drugs into Key West); many more are true. He did crash his twin-engine amphibious plane off the coast of New England. He did dodge bullets shot at his plane by the Jamaican police. He did have to follow a scorching set by Lionel Richie’s Commodores—he decided the best way to follow the “Brick House” band was with a liquid-courage-powered 12-minute monologue and a single song (“Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” punctuated by the eponymous lyrics, plus “and screw”).