Buffett has stayed in touch with his roots
When a successful man speaks, smart folks listen, and few entertainers have done “successful” better than Jimmy Buffett.
Turn the clock back 40 years and Buffett was a struggling recording artist playing for tips on the streets of Key West, Fla. Today he is an entertainment industry icon who personifies a genre of music and a idealized tropical lifestyle that is embraced by his fans, “parrotheads,” worldwide.
Where: Waikiki Shell
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $38, $88 and $135
Info: 768-5252 (Blaisdell Center), 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com
Also: Official tailgate party, Jimmy Buffett’s Restaurant & Bar, 2300 Kalakaua Ave., 2-6 p.m. Sunday, free, 791-1200; and “5 O’Clock on the Beach” party, 2933 Kalakaua Ave., 1-6 p.m. Sunday, $12.50 ($10 pre-sale), www.pauhanaparrotheads.org
Buffett is in Honolulu this weekend for a Sunday show at the Waikiki Shell marking the 30th anniversary of his first-ever show here. The Shell will become “Fin Land” for the evening, a reference to the “land sharks” Buffett mentions in “Fins,” one of his early hits, and when he gets to the “fins to the left, fins to the right” part, everyone in the place should be raising their hands to make “shark fins” and tilting them from side to side on command.
While Buffett presides over surging throngs of enthusiastic, adoring fans during concerts, the “Mayor of Margaritaville” has never lost touch with his street-musician roots.
“Sure, I can front a great 18-piece band and play to tens of thousands of people, but I still like to keep my street chops,” he said when the subject came up during a phone interview last week.
Was his time as a street musician well spent? “Absolutely! I like having that arrow in my quiver. I’ll get up in a bar or any place — I’ve done it in Hawaii. I played by myself at Duke’s one night because I felt like doing it.”
It took Buffett about 10 years of hard work to change from being a cult favorite to mainstream pop artist. His breakthrough hit, “Margaritaville,” came in 1977. Other hits followed — “Volcano,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Fins” and “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” among them — but for much of his career, Buffett has made more money from his tours and his various business interests than from album sales.
“Some people can choose to be just an artist, and for pure art’s sake I admire them for that, but I just never was one of those guys. I was a working street musician, and I like to get paid for my hard work. ”
He adds that “there’s still nothing beats being a good live performer. … I don’t think there’s any technological shortcut around that, through it or anything else.”
BUFFETT thinks having the skills to make a killer YouTube video isn’t necessarily the key to longevity as an entertainer.
“If you’re a younger, struggling artist, I think you combine the work ethic with having to go out there — you have to have that ‘time on the water’ (stage performing) and take advantage of the technology to (reach) your audience. Once you find them, then I think there are tremendous opportunities in social networking to find and keep your audience. That’s probably it in a nutshell for me.”
Buffett’s music is all over YouTube and free to the public. He accepts that as how things are these days, and describes the video-sharing website as “a generational thing.
“You get known up there, but then the fact of it is that even to this day, it does not translate into what goes back to the artist in terms of income-making,” he says. “It’s a generational thing because a lot of people out there think music is free.
“The record business was structured for us not to make money, so I don’t see a big difference in selling a lot of records and not getting paid on ‘em, and not selling a lot of records. That’s the reality of it. I’m not as affected by stuff going out there for free as other people are because we were fortunate enough to create a brand out of what we did.
“We’ve been consistently playing the same number of shows to the same number of crowds for a long, long time. I think people know what to expect when they come to see us, and it’s a rite of passage. It’s doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 80 — if you like to go to the beach, you’re gonna have fun at one of our shows.
“We’ve been lucky — we’re probably running on the fourth or maybe the fifth generation of fans,” he says, adding that the majority of his fan base is between 25 and 40. “They’re not my age.”
BUFFETT, 65, scored a personal first in 2003 when “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” a collaboration with country superstar Alan Jackson, spent eight nonconsecutive weeks on the Billboard Country Singles chart and reached No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was Jackson’s lead single off a compilation album. The lyrics build up to the climactic question, “What would Jimmy Buffett do?”
“The way the song was written, when you look back on it, it certainly is a set-up punch line,” Buffett says, crediting Jackson and producer Keith Stegall with the song’s success. “I just showed up. I sang the whole thing and (Stegall) mixed it. I didn’t have much to do with it. That was Keith, and Alan probably had a lot to do with that, and the writers of the song. I met them later. They were happy campers.”
Looking ahead, Buffett says fans can anticipate a new album and another appearance on “Hawaii Five-0″ as veteran military helicopter pilot Frank Bama.
“We’re just kind of cruising along. We’re busy in our world — our casino is opening in Biloxi (Mississippi), we’ve got a lot of interesting things going on in the Margaritaville business side of things and also in the music side of things. I’m starting to write again, and it’s about time to do an album.
“There’s not a lot to plug right now, but there’s a lot going on,” he says.
–John Berger / email@example.com