Jimmy Buffett was born in Pascagoula on Christmas Day, a gift to the Coast and the world, as he spread his “Margaritaville” attitude in song, books and business.
He died Friday night, on the last weekend of summer, at age 76. His legion of fans, known as “Parrotheads,” are in mourning as is the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
From his start in Pascagoula, Buffett went on to build an entertainment empire starting with a song, a cheeseburger, a flip flop and a pop-top. He was a favorite singer-songwriter, an author and a businessman who had his own brand of beer and opened restaurants, resorts, casinos, a cruise line and even Margaritaville-themed housing developments and campgrounds.
“Buffett is one of a handful of people to have a No. 1 song and a No. 1 book,” I wrote in a column several years ago. “But it was when he announced Margaritaville that he knew his family, who lives all along the Gulf Coast, would realize he’s made it.”
The first time I met him was in May 2007. Buffett sat directly in front of me at Grand Biloxi Casino, guitar in hand, waiting to be introduced after the announcement that he was teaming with Caesars Entertainment to build a casino on the beach in Biloxi.
I had talked to him by phone a few days earlier, and he was so glad to finally be able to reveal some details about the casino that had been in the planning stages for quite awhile.
Gulf Coast memories
Even more than talking to me about the casino, he wanted to recall happy times in South Mississippi, as he did every time I talked to him over the next several years.
Buffett said he’d been to the Mississippi Gulf Coast many times since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the first trip just three days after the devastation, when he returned to Pascagoula “off the radar.”
He grew up in Mobile and frequently visited his aunts, uncles and cousins who lived from Pascagoula to New Orleans, he said. U.S. 90 became his connection “to my dysfunctional Creole family,” he joked.
It was at Trader John’s, a folk club in Biloxi, “where I actually played for money for the first time,” he told me.
He immortalized his two Coast cities with song — “Pascagoula Run” and “Biloxi.”
Above all, ‘Jimmy was kind’
Buffett graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi, where he was friends with Reed Guice, now owner of The Guice Agency public relations firm in Biloxi.
“Jimmy and I were both Kappa Sigmas at USM. We weren’t roommates,” Guice said. “We shared a bathroom in a suite at the fraternity house. So my claim to fame was sharing a toilet with Jimmy.”
Guice said he and his fraternity brothers mourn Buffett’s loss along with millions of Parrotheads.
“Jimmy found out in college you can play thousands of songs with just three chords and never looked back,” Guice said. “His career speaks for itself, but above all, Jimmy was kind. It never went to his head,”
“Margaritaville Casino Resort Biloxi — I want that T-shirt,” Buffett said at the 2007 announcement of the name of the $700 million casino he and Caesars Entertainment were building south of U.S. 90.
“It’s been a long time since I played Biloxi,” Buffett said as he sang “It’s My Job” and “Margaritaville” at the press conference.
The casino was to open in 2010. But soon after the big announcement the country went into a national recession, the cost of steel and other materials soared and the BP oil spill hit the Coast and the tourism industry.
With construction stopped on the beach, Buffett found a spot he loved on the Back Bay. In 2011, four years after announcing the first casino, he went to the Mississippi Gaming Commission to get approval to build a smaller version, where he could fly in and land his plane on the bay.
“I obviously am very pleased to be back here and be part of this,” he told the commission and a room full of people.
Concert heard ‘round the country
This time Margaritaville was built, and in May 2012 Buffett strode barefoot onto the stage outside Margaritaville Casino Biloxi, the town where his career began. The concert played on Buffett’s Margaritaville radio station to fans across the U.S.
“Buffett reminisced with the crowd of about 4,000 invited guests who danced at the foot of the outdoor stage and watched the hour-long concert from the casino balconies overlooking Back Bay,” I wrote that night.
In true Margaritaville fashion, “Those who didn’t have VIP tickets formed an impromptu Parrothead yacht club near the marina and listened from their kayaks and party boats,” I wrote.
He saluted Jake Mladinich, who hired him for his first professional gig at Trader John’s in Biloxi, and called out, “Thank you, Jake. It worked out.”
Karen Sock, manager at the casino, recalls hoisting an oversize Margaritaville glass and toasting the opening with Buffett.
“He was kind and warm,” Sock said. “It was an honor to be in the presence of a music legend.”
The casino, well away from U.S. 90, was hard for visitors to find and built without a hotel. It closed two years later in 2014.
Margaritaville carries on
Two years later, in 2016, Margaritaville Resort Biloxi opened on the beach, just east of where the original casino was to have operated. It carries the Buffett theme with restaurants, decor, music, a waterpark and a new Paradise Pier amusement park.
Buffett made many visits to South Mississippi over the years. He ate at favorite local places like Scranton’s in Pascagoula and Mary Mahoney’s in Biloxi. He played several times at the Coast Coliseum.
He and his sisters, Lucy Buffett and Laurie Buffett McGuane, donated a 33-foot boat to the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs and used Buffett’s LandShark beer instead of champagne to christen it.
Buffett had a bridge named for him in his home town Pascagoula in 2015.
“I guess everybody growing up in the Pascagoula area felt like he was one of us,” attorney David Baria commented on Facebook after hearing of Buffett’s passing. “His music spoke of places and themes that were very familiar to us.”
Pascagoula posted a tribute as did Hattiesburg, where he went to college, and the New Orleans Saints. The team post said, “He was an iconic performer, a true Saints fan, a dear friend of New Orleans, and the life of the party.”
Mary Cracchiolo Spain, one of his biggest fans on the Coast, said in a post after Buffett’s passing was announced: “Headed to the heavens for the Labor Day weekend show.” Marshall Ramsey with Mississippi Today paid tribute to Buffett with one of his iconic cartoons showing Buffett sailing into the sunset.
Mississippi’s music ambassador is gone, but not forgotten in South Mississippi. Recently he and fellow Mississippi native Mac McAnally wrote “Gulf Coast Girl” as a Coast theme song.
The video shows people enjoying the water, landmarks like the Biloxi Lighthouse and the casinos, as Buffett croons: “Have a world of fun on a Pascagoula run, and you might get lucky on a beach in Biloxi.”
He’s left his spirit of Margaritaville behind for his home towns.