‘I found my place’: Chicago embraced Jimmy Buffett long before ‘Margaritaville’

As a regular at the Belmont Avenue folk club Quiet Knight, Buffett became a friend and collaborator with Chicago favorite Steve Goodman.

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Singer Jimmy Buffett headlines Wrigley Field in 2005. It was the first concert ever hosted at the ballpark. 

Singer Jimmy Buffett sings to a sold-out crowd at Wrigley Field in 2005. It was the first concert ever at the ballpark.

Tom Cruze/Sun-Times, File

Years before “Margaritaville” established Jimmy Buffett as a bard of the tropical beaches, the singer-songwriter was a folk club regular in a city lapped by the waves of chilly Lake Michigan.

His visits to Chicago in the early 1970s usually took him to Quiet Knight, a Belmont Avenue fixture of the folk scene then thriving in the city. Buffett found Chicagoans receptive to his mix of acoustic guitar ditties and lighthearted storytelling.

“There were just so many good people [in Chicago] doing solo acoustic guitar shows,” Buffett told the Sun-Times’ Dave Hoekstra in 2011. “The Holstein brothers, Bonnie Koloc, Mike Smith. And those singer-songwriters also had to be comedians and emcees. I had to do that in my early New Orleans days. ...”

“So meeting all those people in Chicago was a renaissance for me. They were great storytellers, bulls--- artists on stage and performers. I gravitated toward that. I found my place.”

During his stints at Quiet Knight he befriended Chicago luminary Steve Goodman, headliner at the larger club Earl of Old Town, and enlisted Goodman to play guitar on his early albums. Buffett went on to record Goodman’s songs “Banana Republics” and “California Promises,” and collaborated with his friend on tracks including “Frank and Lola” and the Key West ballad “Woman Going Crazy on Caroline Street.” among others.

Goodman tapped Buffett in 1972 to pose with a small group of friends for the cover of his album “Somebody Else’s Troubles.” With long hair and mustache, he stands between fellow musician John Prine and Goodman with his family, wife Nancy and baby daughter Jessie. The photo was taken at Goodman’s apartment at 3759 N. Wayne.

Jimmy Buffett (third from left) appears on the cover of “Somebody Else’s Troubles,” a 1972 album by his friend Steve Goodman (seated, with baby).

Jimmy Buffett (third from left) appears on the cover of “Somebody Else’s Troubles,” a 1972 album by his friend Steve Goodman (seated, with baby).

JDC Records

Buffett spent many a languid afternoon at nearby Wrigley Field with Goodman, who would go on to write the team anthem “Go Cubs Go.” A few decades and many layers of fame later, in 2005, Buffett headlined at Wrigley and performed part of the concert from the southern corner of the right field bleachers, where he used to sit with Goodman.

Goodman died of leukemia on Sept. 20, 1984. In his honor, Buffett sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” the next month in the first game of the divisional playoffs at Wrigley Field.

The Wrigley shows were the first-ever concerts at the ballpark, and Buffett would later declare he’d return to “the friendly confines” when the Cubs won a World Series. He made good on the promise, returning for shows in 2017, and again in 2018.

The singer-songwriter would also choose Chicago as the city where the stage jukebox musical, “Escape to Margaritaville,” inspired by his iconic hit, would enjoy its pre-Broadway run in 2017.

Buffett was a huge fan of musical theater, he revealed in a 2017 interview with the Sun-Times, which fueled his desire to transform his biggest hit song into a stage production.

“My love of musical theater dates back far longer than my interest in the music I am known for,” Buffett said. “I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, where my working mother, who had three kids, performed as part of the Mobile Theatre Guild, and she would drag me along to play children’s roles — like the little French-Polynesian boy in ‘South Pacific’ — and I kind of liked it. She also took me to see the road shows that came through town. I learned everything I know from Rodgers and Hammerstein — the way those songs go into your heart, the way the lyrics are like poetry but always driving the story and sounding authentic to the characters. I was a child of the television age, but I loved the live entertainment form.”

Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band would return to the Chicago area over the years, playing Hoffman Estate’s Poplar Creek in 1991, and years later Bridgeview’s Toyota Park and Tinley Park’s First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre. (Their planned United Center debut, scheduled for July 18, 2020, was canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic.) The Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane famously took the Stanley Cup with him to Buffett’s concerts three times to celebrate the team’s championship victories, including Tinley Park where he appeared on stage alongside the singer with the trophy held aloft.

Chicago’s culinary scene is no stranger to Buffett’s influence. Navy Pier is home to one of his Margaritaville restaurants, part of a successful chain of the eateries owned by the singer. Pier management issued a statement Saturday calling out “Buffet’s vision, creativity, artistry, and zest for life.” Future events to celebrate his life will be announced at a later date, the statement said.

In a 2016 interview touting the news of the stage musical, Mike O’Malley, co-writer of the show, told the Sun-Times: “With Buffett songs, I think one theme is how people want to get away from the daily routine, and just relax and focus on who they love and what they want to be doing in their lives. Some of his songs give you the license to chill out, but others are looking back on the night before chaos.”

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