Backstage in South Florida: Who to Thank for Jimmy Buffett's Illustrious Career

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Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week, Jimmy gets a hit and Lee gets the nod.

Prior to May 1977, Jimmy Buffett was just another wannabe singer/songwriter who did his time in Nashville before subsequently retreating to the tropical environs of Key West to relax, regroup and plan his next assault on the mainstream. It would be another 30 years or so before he would add adventurer, author, entrepreneur and sports franchise co-owner to his resume, and so for the time being, his only goal was to have a hit that would establish his brand on the airwaves. He made some minor inroads in June, 1974, when, signed to an obscure record label, his sentimental homesick ballad "Come Monday" managed to make it to number 30 in Billboard. Not bad, Buffett figured, but hardly good enough to endear him to the masses.

Our paths crossed that May, although it took some time to actually connect in person. I was still working as a promo person for ABC Records and Buffett was a new signing to the roster, which already included megastars like Steely Dan, Chaka Khan and the soon-to-be huge Tom Petty.

While Jimmy Buffett was a relative unknown around the rest of the country, he was already a fairly big name in Florida, so it became incumbent upon me to build some local airplay for "Margaritaville" -- the first single off his Changes In Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes album. Fortunately, it was one of those rare occasions where some normally conservative stations agreed to give an untested record airplay practically out of the box. Being that he was now considered a native son, and that his lyrics about blown out flip-flops and soothing concoctions aptly reflected the state's sunnier side, access to their charts seemed appropriate.

Soon, stations from Miami to Jacksonville, and practically everywhere in-between, were blasting the song in heavy rotation, giving impetus to other radio stations across the country to also give it a spin. On May 7, 1977, "Margaritaville" cracked Billboard's top ten, and Buffett was a big star, one who could finally claim hit-making credentials. And I became a hero in my own right, having launched a chart-topper and helped create a new cash cow. A few weeks later, UPS delivered a plaque to my house -- a "gold record" signifying sales of more than a million copies of the album, boasting my name as the object of the label's gratitude.

Still, I hadn't met Mr. Buffett personally, even though I followed him when he commenced a tour of Florida that June. At every stop I'd accompany my radio contacts backstage where they'd get a hearty welcome as if they were long lost friends -- and in many instances, they were. In fact, everybody seemed to know Buffett better than a guy who played a major role in his big break. But being a basically shy guy, I hung back, and let everyone else share the hugs and the high fives. It was kind of like feeling like a stranger at your own family reunion.

The trend continued through each of the stops -- Sarasota, Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando, Jacksonville -- until I eventually found myself backstage at the old Miami Baseball Stadium. A temporary dressing room had been set up in a prefab building on the grassy area behind the stage, and as usual, I accompanied my radio guests in to meet Jimmy, who, as always gave them a warm welcome while I was all but ignored. I retreated outside and sat down on the grass, sulking over the fact that because I was so shy, I hadn't recieved any due recognition.

Suddenly, I looked to my left, and there was Buffett squatting beside me. "How are you doing, man?" he asked quietly. "Fine," I replied, basking in Buffett's attention. "Thanks for all your help on the record," he nodded. We talked for a few more minutes and then he went back to the trailer to prep for the show.

It would be a few weeks before I received the gold record, but at that point I had my affirmation.

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