If you ask serious Jimmy Buffett fans what his breakout song was, what song moved him from struggling to succeeding, many will tell you, "Margaritaville." Indeed, this breezy ballad of a tropical lifestyle became Buffett's signature song, sort of his theme song.
But Buffett had one hit before "Margaritaville." His first big national hit. His breakthrough or breakout.
Bill Alexander had been a classmate of Jimmy Buffett at Mobile's McGill High School (it was not yet McGill-Toolen). "Billy" Alexander and "Bubba" Buffett graduated in the Class of '64. Buffett did not know how to play guitar at that time, which he learned later while flunking out of Auburn. Buffett played trombone in the McGill band in high school and was a cheerleader.
Alexander, now living in Gulf Shores, knew Buffett after that as a struggling performer of one-night stands and sometimes a street musician.
Alexander was riding down the road listening to his car radio. He heard a song in progress and instantly recognized the voice.
"That's Jimmy Buffet," he said to himself. "No one else has a voice like that." Right on both points. He liked the song and instantly felt it would be a hit. He started listening out for the song and news about it – and news about Buffett.
Alexander found out Buffett was going to play near where has was working. He got a ticket and went. After the show, which he immensely enjoyed, he maneuvered his way backstage. He ran into Buffett (intentionally) and said:
Buffett replied, "Alexander!" They chatted.
Bill Alexander's instincts had been accurate. The song was a hit, and Buffett transitioned from a struggling musician into an upward journey toward musical and business super-success.
Shortly before the Alexander story, fifty years ago, an unknown singer and songwriter from Mobile was sitting in a motel room outside San Francisco. Buffett had struggled to receive radio play for his music. He even wrote a song, now largely forgotten, about his struggles to get on the radio – "If I Had a Saxophone."
The big and fairly sudden change in status for Buffett came to fruition 50 years ago, in late October 1973, when Buffett walked into a studio in Nashville and recorded "Come Monday."
The song is autobiographical. Buffett had been driving toward California to play a series of shows opening for another act when he started composing the song:
Headin' out to San Francisco
For the Labor Day weekend show
I got my Hush Puppies on
I guess I never was meant for glitter rock 'n' roll.
Buffett opened for Country Joe McDonald north of San Fran. He stayed at a Howard Johnson motel. This is where he finished the song while going through a depression about his career and questioning if he was in the right business.
Ten years after the song was recorded and had started Buffett toward the next level of success, we learned more of the story. Buffett appeared on the David Letterman Show in 1983:
"This is a song that kept me from killing myself in a Howard Johnson's in Marin County. It hit, I paid the rent, got my dog out of the pound. I was deathly depressed in a Howard Johnson's under Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, living there and playing in San Anselmo. It was awful, and I wrote this song, and it hit, and the rest is history."
But does the song identify a different locale for the song's genesis? It says:
"I spent four lonely days in a brown L.A haze."
The Los Angeles haze is nowhere near San Francisco. Buffett had a similar experience in a hotel in L.A. Hence, "Come Monday" is an amalgam of two eerily similar Buffett hotel stays brooding about his static career and undiscovered – and mostly unwritten – songs.
A half-century has now passed, and "Come Monday" is enjoying a resurgence, as are all things Buffett. I thought you would wanna know the very human story behind the song. The autobiographical song. The breakthrough song.
The author, Jim Zeigler, is a former Alabama Public Service Commissioner and State Auditor. You can reach him for comment at [email protected].