Singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett admitted that when he was a student at The University of Southern Mississippi he focused more on his music and partying than his classes.
“I went [to Southern] not to get an education,” Buffett said in his book “A Pirate Looks at Fifty.”
“I went there because it was close to New Orleans. xThat was where I was really getting the education that would prepare me for life.”
The Pascagoula-born, Mobile-raised singer had no intention of becoming a Jesuit priest or a naval officer like his parents intended. Instead, he focused on forging a path in the music industry, beginning with learning how to play guitar from a fraternity brother at Auburn. Buffett hoped that learning to play the guitar would help attract girls, and his efforts did not go unnoticed. He soon became distracted by his newfound passion for music and women, which led to him flunking out of Auburn after only a year in 1964.
In August of that same year, the United States became involved in the Vietnam War, and Buffett was in danger of being drafted. He attempted to enroll at Louisiana State University and was denied because of his low grades. As Buffett was wandering back home from Baton Rouge to Mobile, he came across the town of Poplarville, Mississippi.
He became distracted by women he saw crossing the street on the way to their classes and decided to go to the administration building to beg for entry. To his surprise, his grades qualified him to be a freshman on probation. He immediately drove home, packed his bags and left a note for his parents that he had enrolled at Pearl River. Thanks to a college deferment, Buffett kept out of Vietnam. After a year at community college, Buffett’s grades were high enough for him to transfer to Southern Miss in 1966.
“My heart had stayed in New Orleans though I went through the motions of being a student, but the war was the big pickle and my student deferment, that amazing ‘get out of jail free’ pass, was all that kept me from trading my guitar for a gun,” Buffett said. “If you flunked out of school, you were drafted. If you graduated, same thing. It became the game of the decade to try and figure out how to beat the selective-service process.”
The musician continued taking classes Monday through Wednesday in Hattiesburg and raced to New Orleans to play with his band, the Upstairs Alliance, the remaining four days of the week. That’s where Buffett received his real education: on the streets and in the bars of the late 1960s French Quarter. After he graduated, the singer applied for Officer Candidate School of the United States Navy but was denied when he failed his physical.
Finally, Buffett was free to pursue his passion for performing. He met his first wife Margie Washichek at St. Joseph Chapel in Spring Hill, and the couple moved to Nashville after Buffett’s graduation from Southern Miss in 1969. There, he got a job at Billboard magazine working as a reporter, his first and only nine-to-five job. Buffett signed with Barnaby Records in 1970 and produced his first album with over thirty more albums to follow.
His first albums “Down to Earth” and “High Cumberland Jubilee” went largely unnoticed by the public. It wasn’t until the early 1970s when Buffett began spending time in Key West, Florida, and developed his signature beach bum style that his music style evolved. With instant hits such as “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (And Screw)”, the singer started to attract his loyal followers who began to call themselves “Parrotheads” as they adopted the Hawaiian shirts and laidback attitude of Buffett himself.
President of the University of West Florida Martha Saunders and former president of Southern Miss graduated with Buffett in 1969 and spoke about his passion for performing. She said that she and Buffett were only casual acquaintances in college, but he and Saunders’s roommate were very good friends.
“I remember him well playing and singing on campus,” Saunders said. “He was always a popular act. More importantly, he never took his eye off the prize. He created opportunities for himself and never passed up a chance to pursue his dream.”
“Jimmy told me recently that he made sure he learned the ins and outs of the music industry – a wise move on his part given the mercurial nature of the business,” she said. “His concerts are a lot of fun and take most of us fans to our happy places of warm sun and sand — but there’s a lot of substance behind the Jimmy Buffett phenomenon based on good strategy and hard work.”
Besides being a singer, songwriter, actor, author and businessman, Buffett recently produced a musical, “Escape to Margaritaville” which premiered on Broadway in February 2018. However, he is best known for his hit song “Margaritaville” which was inducted into the 2016 Grammy Hall of Fame. He also recently announced a string of Margaritaville-brand retirement homes, beginning with Daytona Beach, Florida.
Buffett eventually returned to Southern Miss for a visit after recording his second album in 1971 where he met famous harmonica player and Coral Reefer Band original member Greg “Fingers” Taylor.
Taylor described his first encounter with Buffett in an interview with Mississippi Blues Newsletter, “I was just wandering through the Hub one night, and there was this guy with long blonde hair and a mustache playing ‘Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw’ to about five little old ladies on break from their night class. . . So we got up there and it was just sort of a chemistry, just one of those things.”
The university honored the pair’s meeting with a plaque placed near the steps of The Hub in 2015.
“It’s only fitting we recognize the legacies of Buffett and Taylor, whose contributions to American popular music are indeed significant. The story of their session at The Hub and what followed is a treasured part of the Southern Miss story,” University Historian Chester “Bo” Morgan said.
At the ceremony, President of Kappa Sigma Epsilon-Nu Phillip LemEre represented Buffett, who was a member of the fraternity, and Harrison Cunningham represented Taylor, who was his relative.
“[I was] mostly very aware of his success,” Cunningham said. “We always enjoyed listening to his music. Because he was a busy working musician and living in another state, face to face time was rare! He was not able to attend due to health reasons and his brother Brent (also a USM alum) was aware I was a student at USM and thought it would be a perfect opportunity for me to represent the family during the marker dedication and I was extremely honored to do so.”
The Southern Miss alumnus has not performed in Hattiesburg in 38 years since his concert at Reed Green Coliseum on Oct. 31, 1980. For one night only on April 26, Buffett plans to bring back his signature “Margaritaville” music and style to the Saenger Theatre for a sold-out concert. Members of the Coral Reefers Mac McAnally, Robert Greenridge, Eric Darken, Nadirah Shakoor and Tina Gullickson will accompany Buffett to Hattiesburg. Special guests Sonny Landreth and ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro will also play with Buffett.
Tickets for the show at the Saenger Theater went on sale at 10 a.m. on Friday, April 6 and sold out within two minutes, a new record for the venue. Many fans were upset with how quickly they sold out the 997-seat theater.
Executive Director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission Rick Taylor said Live Nation contacted the commission about Buffett performing at the Saenger. Taylor said that the production company set aside a “sizable block” of tickets before they were available to the general public, but she did not say how many tickets were sold from the Saenger.
The Saenger also plans to host a “Margaritaville”-themed street party in front of the Saenger at 5 p.m. on the day of the show. In addition, Buffett and the Acoustic Airmen will make an appearance during the 2018 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Sunday, April 29.