Remembering the tropical zen of Jimmy Buffett in South Florida

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If you want to trace the end of COVID as a life-altering menace in South Florida to a single moment, it would be shortly after 8 p.m. on May 13, 2021, when Jimmy Buffett strode onstage at Old School Square in downtown Delray Beach.

Looking relaxed and tanned, in the unofficial uniform of South Florida — tropical shirt and khaki shorts — Buffett’s arrival induced an immediate standing ovation from a wildly expectant crowd of folks from across the country sequestered in pod seating on that early summer evening.

It was the first of four Buffett concerts and the first locally by any superstar performer since the COVID shutdown — a month earlier, the annual Tortuga Music Festival had been postponed for a second time. The full allotment of 3,552 Buffett tickets sold out in 10 minutes, with one pod reportedly priced at more than $10,000 on resale markets.

Buffett told the crowd that he had come with a purpose.

“For the first time in human history, fun was stopped,” he said. “We’re back.”

And, just like that, the long night of the pandemic seemed to be at its end, invited by the personal warmth of this man who had chased sunsets his whole life and took us along for the journey. Fun was back.

“It was like, he said it and made it so, right?” said Ellen Campo, of Northport, N.Y., with a laugh. The 33-year-old nurse, reached on Saturday, said the show was worth the travel from Long Island.

“It’s kind of my Dad’s music, but that made it even better. It was the antidote I needed, that music, the change in latitude,” she said, again laughing.

It is hard to overestimate the enduring influence of Jimmy Buffett on South Florida culture as a songwriter, a pied piper of positivity, a local sports fan, a hotelier and a brand.

Buffett, who died on Friday at age 76, found his writing voice 50 years ago in the gritty bars of Key West with songs that have become cultural shorthand for a free-spirited, ocean-borne outlook on life that defines, for most of the country and beyond, the Florida dream.

His legacy does not rely on music sales and awards, but rather the universal beachside zen captured in his music. His lone Top 10 hit, “Margaritaville,” famously written while Buffett was stuck in traffic on the Overseas Highway on the way to the Keys, was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in April.

Most natives can sing from memory “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” “Come Monday” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”

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But it’s the deep tracks that bind lifelong Parrotheads. Tracy Eagan, of Jupiter, was at Buffett’s Delray Beach comeback concert and recalls one of her favorite songs being played, the upbeat rarity “Last Mango in Paris.”

“We still have his music, but it’s incredibly sad to think we’ll never get to hear him play them again. That was when he was at his best,” Eagan said on Saturday.

For BIG 105.9 radio personality Paul Castronovo, a perfect Buffett playlist would include “Everybody’s Got a Cousin in Miami,” “Jamaica Mistaica” and “Pencil Thin Mustache.”

“He just tells a story via song, and he really paints a great picture, and that’s why I love those songs,” he said.

Castronovo admitted to being “misty eyed” when he got the news on Saturday. He plans to dedicate the Tuesday morning edition of “The Paul Castronovo Show” to Buffett.

“I could be sitting at the Charthouse in Key West with a rum and coke, I could be crossing the Gulfstream in my boat waiting to see the first palm tree on the other side, I could be anchored up on a reef somewhere pulling a yellowtail snapper, and Jimmy Buffett is the soundtrack to that moment,” said Castronovo, a fan since seeing Buffett open for the Eagles in Gainesville in the early 1970s.

Fort Lauderdale-based writer-director Wil Shriner said that while his longtime friend was an entertainment star and a titan of the hospitality industry, he remained very down-to-earth.

Shriner got to know Buffett nearly 20 years ago at a retreat in the California Redwoods while talking about watches and seaplanes. They consummated a deal for Shriner to direct the 2006 movie “Hoot” — Buffett had optioned film rights on friend Carl Hiaasen’s novel — with a handshake over fish sandwiches in the Keys.

“Great guy, great sense of humor, loved to laugh. He was gracious to his fans. He tried everything,” Shriner said. “He never stopped. Every year he did something to grow as an individual. Whether it was snowboarding or immersive French — he went to Montreal for a month to learn French. He was a guy who was always motivated to do something.”

Sometimes, even Buffett’s Midas touch didn’t work. His Broadway show “Escape to Margaritaville” opened and closed after about six weeks in 2018.

“It was based on his life, and it didn’t last long. But his motto was, ‘We’re like circus people. We put up a tent, and if nobody comes, we take down the tent and we go to the next town,’ ” Shriner said. “That was one of the fun things about being around him. He had tremendous optimism.”

Margate musician Jimmy Stowe has been playing Jimmy Buffett covers with his band, the Stowaways, at clubs and private parties across South Florida for more than 30 years, Stowe and band also have opened for Buffett at least 10 times.

Several times Buffett would make an impromptu appearance onstage with the Stowaways, an illustration of the superstar’s generous spirit, said Stowe, calling news of Buffett’s passing “overwhelmingly sad.”

“His music and philosophy of living has been a big part of my consciousness for so long, as it has been for millions of fun-loving people all over the world,” Stowe said. “It is a sad day, but is not ‘the day the music died.’ On the contrary, it is the next phase of a life of a legend that will live on in our bars, on boats, beaches and, most importantly, in our hearts.”

Stowe and bandmate Larry Agovino plan to play their regular set in the lobby at Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Stowe said he was still considering how to best remember Buffett with the performance.

Staff writer Ben Crandell can be reached at Follow on Instagram @BenCrandell and Twitter @BenCrandell.