Sun & Skin News

Play On, Jimmy Buffett

By Stephanie Dolgoff • May 28, 2024
JImmy Buffett Illustration

His fans adored him for the salt-rimmed, worry-free lifestyle he espoused. Now his enormous following has given him a posthumous role as a skin cancer awareness-raiser.  

I’ll bet you’ve experienced your own version of this: I’m in a car, a bar or at an event, with music blaring, busy with my own distracted thoughts. Then, the first guitar chords of “Margaritaville” find their way through. Even before the first lyrics are sung, happy anticipation bubbles up. Part of that is being reminded of my 1970s AM pop radio childhood, before my adult worries and responsibilities took hold. 

But more than that, I know what’s about to happen is a rare and wondrous thing, especially in our divisive era: Everyone within earshot is about to start singing — guys and gals, old and relatively young, even eye-rolling music snobs who act like they’re participating ironically but secretly love it. Many of us can’t carry a tune, but it doesn’t matter. For the next few minutes, at least, we are all literally singing the same song. 

“Nibbling on sponge cake
Watching the sun bake
All of those tourists covered with oil …”

CMT Presents Jimmy Buffett & Friends: Live from the Gulf Coast - Show

Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT
Encores, Encores: Jimmy Buffett strikes a chord with a devoted crowd on the beach at Gulf Shores, Alabama, in 2010.

The third line of “Margaritaville” will make readers of this website cringe — as it should. But in 1977, when Jimmy Buffett’s breakthrough hit was coming through transistor radios on beaches across the country, a “deep, dark” tan was the brass ring. (I mixed iodine into my baby oil to stain my skin; it didn’t work.)  

The whole world was late to the SPF party. The measurement for sun protection factor didn’t become standard until the 1980s, and it wasn’t until the ’90s that stores sold formulations of SPF 15 or 30. We now know how to protect our skin from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays; Buffett listed sunscreen as an essential in his 1998 bestseller A Pirate Looks at Fifty, later launching a sunscreen line as part of his Margaritaville business juggernaut. But like too many people, Buffett developed skin cancer — in his case a rare, aggressive form called Merkel cell carcinoma. Tragically, after four years of treatment, Buffett succumbed to this aggressive disease on September 1, 2023, at age 76. 

“Poets of Paradise”

The big-name outpourings of respect and love from a genre-spanning spectrum of superstars may have come as a surprise to folks who wrote him off long ago as karaoke fodder. Nonetheless, Paul McCartney (who performed on Buffett’s posthumously released record), Kenny Chesney, LL Cool J, Sammy Hagar, Elton John and Sheryl Crow are just a few who praised him as a musician, songwriter and all-around kind and generous human. President Biden called him a “a poet of paradise … who inspired generations to step back and find the joy in life and in one another.” (In October 2023, the U.S. Senate even unanimously passed a resolution to honor the singer.) Perhaps his old friend James Taylor put it best when he posted on Instagram, “@JimmyBuffett invented his own character, which, in a sense, we all do: invent, assemble, inherit or fall into our inner identity. But Jimmy was the founder of an actual tribe: tens of thousands of us made our way to where he was holding court, just to be near him.” 

Jimmy Buffett At Sea

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Sun Worshipper: The “son of a son of a sailor” relaxing on his own sailboat in Key West in the mid 1970s.

Taylor wasn’t kidding. Casual fans may not realize that he had a Grateful Dead-like following, dubbed “Parrotheads” by a member of Buffett’s group, Coral Reefer Band. Buffett, who released a total of 53 albums, toured until his health made it impossible last year. Parrotheads often flock to shows wearing Hawaiian shirts, feathered headgear, shark fins and grass skirts to tailgate, even at landlocked venues. “Some brought giant sandboxes to simulate the beach and continued the boozy celebrations after the concerts ended,” The Washington Post wrote. They even have their own vocabulary: “Fins up!” is the standard greeting, a reference to Buffett’s 1979 song, “Fins.” This community, bound together not just by his music but by the laid-back beachy lifestyle he came to represent, has spawned networks of relationships, fan clubs and do-good volunteer groups that work to carry on causes they feel embody the Parrothead ethos. 

Naturally, his fans were devastated by his death. “No performer, past, present or future, will impact my life in such a positive and incredible way,” wrote one fan on, a forum for devoted fans. (This enthusiast attended 67 concerts.) “Sail on Jimmy. And thank you.” Another poster reported wearing Jimmy Buffett merch the day he learned of his passing and having complete strangers, also devastated, come mourn with him; others expressed gratitude for the close friends they’d made at Buffett shows and raising their children on his music via Buffett’s Radio Margaritaville SiriusXM channel. 

Still others spoke of the salubrious psychological effect Buffett’s work had on them. “Like many of you, winter’s quite a struggle for me,” wrote Finnsaremorefun, who had been gearing up to attend an 18th show before the sad news. “It’s a mental challenge more than physical, and it’s been Jimmy’s books, stories, music and anticipation of every summer tour that has helped get me through those difficult months.” 

Musical Mogul

Photo of Jimmy Buffett

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Down to Earth: A young Buffett captured with his guitar in 1970.

Jimmy Buffett wasn’t born the “tropical troubadour,” of course, though his ship captain grandfather’s tales of the high seas fascinated him. Raised in Mississippi and Alabama, Buffett hit Nashville after college to pursue music. When things didn’t really click and with his brief first marriage fizzling, he made his way to Key West in 1971. The not-yet built-up Navy town felt like home to him, and he wrote songs about the unbothered vibe of the place, the people it drew and some of the fringier characters he met there, singing in bars at night while doing day work on fishing boats to pay the bills. 

 His mix of folk, country and rock with a splash of Calypso was earning him a following. In 1973, he began to release albums, some of which have songs that his fans adore, even if they didn’t know about them until after his more popular songs hit the airwaves. (“Come Monday” made it to No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1974, and the Coral Reefer Band got to open for the Eagles.) 

 But it was “Margaritaville” in 1977, a back-of-the-napkin composition that reached No. 8 on the charts, that brought Buffett money and wide recognition. The song was even inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry for its cultural significance. In 1983, after the restaurant chain Chi-Chi’s tried to name one of their drinks “Margaritaville,” and even though song titles cannot be copyrighted, Buffett sued and won, successfully arguing that “Margaritaville” is synonymous with him.  

 That’s how his empire got started. After giving the name to a Key West resort and restaurant, Buffett eventually took on a business partner. At the time of his passing, Margaritaville Holdings included 29 restaurants, 35+ bars, including Air Margaritaville at airports and “It’s 5 o’Clock Somewhere” bars, plus casinos, hotels and all-inclusives, sea cruises and even Latitudes, which are three retirement communities that include Fins Up! fitness centers and Last Mango theaters. (“Last Mango in Paris” is the title of a 1985 song.) “It’s like being in college, but with money and without having to study,” one Daytona Beach Latitudes resident told The New Yorker. “You have a great dorm room, you never have to go to class and there’s always a party.” 

 All the while, Buffett continued to perform and record (he had a No. 1 hit when he sang with Alan Jackson on a cover of Buffett’s “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere.”) He also wrote several bestsellers over the years, both fiction and non-, and tried his hand at a Broadway musical. Buffett, who was estimated by Forbes to be worth $1 billion, was also involved with charitable causes, such as Singing for Change, Save the Manatee Club (which he cofounded) and Last Mango Boatworks, to which he donated the proceeds from Jimmy Buffett apparel. His fans continue to “party with a purpose” [at, short for Parrot Heads in Paradise, Inc.] to raise funds for these and other organizations. “See, it was never about the drinking, like so many people casually dismiss Buffett,” wrote MDShark70, a Parrothead from Maryland who has seen 108 concerts. “He was the hardest-working ‘beach bum’ you’ve ever seen.” 

Still Giving

Add to Buffett’s legacy of music and joy the fact that his death will no doubt save lives by directing attention to Merkel cell carcinoma (also known as MCC). Sue Manber, among many other things a patient advocate, used to say she was a survivor of MCC. “Now I say I am a survivor of the rare skin cancer that Jimmy Buffett died of,” she says. Manber currently serves as the chief patient officer for Publicis Health, a leading health-care communications company, and works closely with The Skin Cancer Foundation to raise awareness of MCC and skin cancer risk overall 

Premiere Of Universal Pictures' "Jurassic World" - After Party

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere: Buffett brings his beachy vibe to a 2015 party in LA after a Hollywood film premiere.

Buffett’s spotlight is indeed now on MCC. Palmettopirate, a 76-year-old fan from South Carolina, saw his dermatologist recently. “I asked [the doctor] this morning if she’d been asked lots of questions about Merkel cell since Jimmy passed away,” he recalls on “And I just said Jimmy. It was like Elvis. She knew right away who I was talking about. And I don’t even know if she’s a fan. But she said she had been asked several times a day.”   

The evidence of his impact is more than anecdotal. The Skin Cancer Foundation’s website saw a huge spike in traffic in the days after Buffett’s passing, and it remained high. The week that Buffett’s cause of death was revealed, the site saw half a million visitors, as opposed to the typical 150,000. Usually the most-visited pages contain information about the more common skin cancers, but 120,000 people visited the MCC overview page, compared to just 1,600 the week before. And information from the site was being shared on social media at a high rate. 

In 2012, Manber’s daughter noticed a pimple-like growth on her mom’s nose, and Manber wasted no time getting it checked out. Calling her with biopsy results on New Year’s Eve, “The doctor told me to sit down,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You have a rare, aggressive and deadly form of skin cancer. You’re going to need significant treatment.’” After seven surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, Manber has defied the odds with no evidence of disease for many years, a rare success story given the treatments that were available when she was diagnosed.  

As with all skin cancers, early detection is crucial, and if you don’t know a disease even exists, early detection is unlikely. “Treatment options now give you so much more hope than just 11 years ago when I was diagnosed,” says Manber, who adds “her dream” would be to organize free skin checks at Margaritaville properties around the country. “His passing is terrible news — a tragedy,” she says, “But we should always find the good, and because of the power of his brand and the impact he had on his huge fan base, if he could help every one of his fans lower their risk, I think he would have been all for it.”  

From what his friends and fans have said about the man, it sure seems that way. Jimmy Buffett will be remembered for the joy and community he brought through his music and the way his Margaritaville havens give folks a way to relax in flip-flops and sip on an umbrella drink when real life drifts too far from the beach. Asked in 2020 by Rolling Stone how he’d want to be remembered, he replied, “I’d say, ‘He had a good time and made a lot of people happy’ would be good. Yeah, that’d be good.” 


Stephanie Dolgoff is a health and lifestyle journalist living in New York City. She prefers the mountains to the beach but never turns down an umbrella drink. 

Make a Donation
Find a Dermatologist

Recommended Products