Jimmy Buffett in Key West: an Island Runaways quest
Update September 2023: We were so terribly sad to hear that the tropical troubadour himself, Jimmy Buffett, has died. May his music live on and continue to bring joy to millions of people. This post was originally written in 2015.
Those of you who love Jimmy Buffett's music, and maybe even consider yourself a Parrothead, know that Key West plays a huge role in Buffett lore. In fact, on the Margaritaville website, it states clearly that Key West was the town "that would prove to be the biggest influence in his musical career." It was here on this Florida island that the musician and singer would create his legendary Coral Reefer Band.
(We wondered where to find traces of Jimmy Buffett in Key West. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
Key West's unique vibe and way of life inspired a new type of music, one that many folks today call "Tropical Rock" or "Trop Rock." Today, you can hear musicians playing Jimmy Buffett covers on any given night in the Florida Keys, and Buffett reminders abound. (The Margaritaville on Duval Street...)
( Jimmy Buffett's restaurant Margaritaville on Duval Street in Key West. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
As Zickie and I, the Island Runaways blogging duo, were headed down the Overseas Highway on our way to Key West for a little summer R&R, I was reading bits and pieces of a guidebook, June Keith's Key West & the Florida Keys (published by Palm Island Press). Keith is a writer who lives in Key West and knows the island extremely well, which makes me take any information in her guidebook pretty seriously. So imagine my surprise when I read the following on page 77: "For much of the 70s, Buffett lived in a second-story apartment at 704 Waddell Street. Today the house contains several luxurious condominiums that are rented out to up-scale tourists." Aha! This was a revelation. So, you know what we did when we reached Key West, right?
(Aha! Waddell Street in Key West. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
We decided to go in hunt of this address, which isn't too far from the well known dining spot Louie's Backyard. First it was essential to locate Waddell Street. In one of those strange coincidences that you can't make up, it turned out that the road was situated only steps away from the side entrance of our hotel, Casa Marina. So, we hurried over there with cameras in tow. First we identified Louie's Backyard (where, I have to confess, we still have not eaten. Next trip!)
(Louie's Backyard on Waddell Street. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
In her guide, June Keith also writes, "Buffett ate at Louie's, often playing for his supper, often singing for meals that were ultimately never paid for." So, there it was, the restaurant where the man himself played. Right next to the building is a tiny, tiny beach called Dog Beach -- perhaps one of the smallest beaches in the world.
(Tiny Dog Beach, next to Louie's Backyard. Photo by Island Runaways/L.A.)
Now, we needed to simply identify 704 Waddell. Unfortunately for us, the buildings just beside Louie's did not have street numbers. (Or if they did, we couldn't find them.) So we resorted to using GPS, and walking up and down that block. Here is where Google Maps had us stop:
(Is this it? Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
Well, there was certainly a front porch, as in the lyrics "on my front porch swing." Yet there was another building, not on the corner of Alberta, but part of the same compound and painted the same colors, that might have been 704, if our GPS had the directions wrong. One thing for certain? This complex of buildings definitely contained Jimmy Buffett's former apartment, at one time or another. How do I know? Because we saw this:
(A Key West Parrothead landmark. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
Yes, the Coconut Beach Resort most certainly fit the description Keith gives of a house with luxurious condos catering to upscale travelers. Check, and check! As far as I could see, there was no placard or sign stating that the Key West legend had once dreamed up lyrics that many of us would know by heart. (I have heard that while Buffett began writing Margaritaville in Austin, Texas, he completed the song in Key West. Perhaps here on Waddell Street? This isn't information I can verify, but another rumor that could very well be true.)
You have to imagine how the house, divided into apartments, looked at that time: perhaps a little worn around the edges, maybe even downright shabby. All those decades ago, Key West wasn't the highly restored, hugely expensive real estate market that it is today. It was a city and an island in economic decline. Jimmy Buffett -- along with many other creative people, entrepreneurs, and historic preservationists-- took a chance on Key West. Their combined efforts and Jimmy's irresistible music ultimately led to Key West's renewal and nascent popularity as a tourist destination.
Maybe the present-day resort isn't eager to have tourists and Parrotheads lining up outside their doorstep, posing for photos. That's understandable in a way. People come here to stay to escape to peace and quiet. Still, it would be nice to know exactly where Jimmy's apartment was in the building. Now, wouldn't that be popular? A chance to spend the night where he wrote hits and dreamed of the future? Like many, many places in Key West, there's an island mystery at work that clouds the absolute truth.
As the light grew softer and dimmer, Zickie and I snapped photographs and hummed the tune to Margaritaville until at last, it was time to bid Waddell Street good-night.
Laura Albritton is the author of four books on the Florida Keys, including Key West's Duval Street, which contains pictures of Mr. Jimmy Buffett, Margaritaville, and the Chart Room bar. She also wrote Hidden History of the Florida Keys with historian Jerry Wilkinson. She served as the writer on the documentary film, The Florida Keys: Two Hundred Years of Paradise, produced by South Florida Public Television.