HE ARRIVED BY bicycle and sat alone at the bar.
For a famous musician, Jimmy Buffett, who died Sept. 1, was famously approachable, a laid-back superstar who looked like many of his Parrotthead followers and often struck up conversations with strangers, whether fishing on the beach or sitting at a bar.
But during those slow mid-afternoon hours at Nick & Johnnie’s back in 2012, when the busy Palm Beach dinner crowd was still hours away and there was hardly anyone around except for the bartender, Buffett wasn’t necessarily looking to mingle with anyone.
A baseball cap on his head, the tropical-vibe troubadour who parlayed his 1977 hit “Margaritaville” into a multimillion-dollar empire of restaurants, hotels and merchandise was content to surf his laptop and sip his favorite tequila.
And, no, the tequila Buffett liked to sip at Nick & Johnnie’s was not from the “frozen concoction” that, in the song he made famous, helped him hang on.
“He always had Don Julio 1942 on the rocks and I would always pour him a double,’’ recalled Travis Suit, who was tending bar when he met Buffett in 2012.
“Aside from a glass of Chardonnay, that was the only liquor he ever drank that I poured for him. He always joked with me that I poured a really good drink.’’
And over many a good pour in the ensuing weeks and months, a casual friendship began to marinate.
Chatting away in the nearly-empty bar on Royal Poinciana Way, the young amiable bartender and the aging music icon — a semi-regular who owned a house near the beach a few blocks north on Root Trail — shared stories not about songs and records but family, friends and surfing.
“He would come in pretty anonymously,’’ Suit recalled. “Most people didn't pick up on it that it was him. He would sit at the bar and share stories about his travels and show me pictures on his iPad of him surfing different waves around the world. We just got to know each other that way.’’
One time Buffett mentioned how he'd been out partying the night before with musician Jon Bon Jovi. Suit, at the time in his late 20s, did his best to not gush like a groupie.
After all, Palm Beach is full of A-listers, big shots and movers-and-shakers, many of whom often mingle with mortals in the island’s many establishments. But there was something mellow and genuine about Buffett that put the Suit at ease and, on the days the musician bicycled over for some Don Julio 1942, made Nick & Johnnie’s feel like their own private tropical version of Cheers.
“I used to pinch myself when I was standing there talking to him at the bar,” he said. “I served thousands of people over the years and he was probably the most famous person I served. But just to have conversation with him in that environment, because you really get an intimate one-on-one with somebody when they have a cocktail or two and they open up and share.’’
One day in late 2013 or 2014, Buffett sidled up at the bar and asked Suit about his family. The musician was being friendly and sincere but had no idea his conversation opener was broaching a difficult topic.
The bartender opened up and explained matter of factly how his daughter, Piper, had recently, at age 4, been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a progressive, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits a person's ability to breathe.
At the time, Suit had just started to raise awareness to the disease by organizing fundraisers, most famously in July 2013 with his first Crossing for Cystic Fibrosis, a one-day, 80-mile journey from Lake Worth Beach to the Bahamas on paddleboard.
The crossing has grown into an annual event that raises awareness along with hundreds of thousands of dollars for families dealing with cystic fibrosis. That day at the bar 10 years or so ago, Buffett told Suit he knew all about the first Bahamas charity crossing, having seen something about it in the news.
Then, Mr. Margaritaville put down his iPad and stared intently at his favorite Palm Beach bartender. “Look, if you and Piper ever need anything, just let me know. I’ll do anything for you guys,’’ he said, according to Suit.
Suit eventually stopped working at Nick & Johnnie’s. In 2017, he formed Piper’s Angels Foundation, a nonprofit that hosts the annual Crossing for Cystic Fibrosis, raises awareness to the disease and contributes money to families dealing with it.
Although their bar-hanging days at Nick & Johnnie’s were over, Suit stayed in touch with Buffett and never forgot about the day years earlier when the musician offered to help.
Not long after forming the foundation, he decided to take Buffett up on his offer.
“I said, ‘Hey, we are looking for different resources for people to get involved. We need sponsors,’’’ he recalled saying to Buffett, who was still busy with Margaritaville and touring with his Coral Reefer Band.
To Suit’s surprise, Buffett gave a resounding yes and brought on Margaritaville as a sponsor.
"He helped us fundraise. He offered to join our advisory board. That was a huge feather in our cap because as a young organization his name association was huge,’’ Suit said. “I got phone calls and emails from people all over who were like, ‘Holy cow! You got Jimmy Buffett on your advisory board?’’’
In 2019, the year he joined the foundation’s advisory board, Buffett agreed to participate in two short videos promoting the Crossing for Cystic Fibrosis – a pre-crossing welcome and a congratulatory message to participants who completed the crossing.
The videos were barely half a minute each, but Buffett comes across as sincere and enthusiastic, ending each clip by putting the flat side of a hand over his hand and repeating the line made famous by his Parrothead devotees: “Keep those fins up!”
“He had limited time but he knew for us that just his namesake being associated with the foundation would be a huge help with the credibility as we were getting off the ground, and that was really where it mattered most,’’ Suit said.
A year or so later, the foundation offered to recognize Buffett with an honorary award as a gesture of thanks. The singer politely declined.
“He was like, ‘No, no, no. I don’t need the recognition. Please give it to someone else,’’’ Suit recalled. “He was a very humble guy behind the scenes. He was super generous and gracious with his time.’’
Looking back on that day at the bar when he first shared his daughter’s health issues with Buffett, Suit said the musician reacted like anyone would when hearing such news, offering sympathy and saying “I’ll do anything for you guys.’’
Except Jimmy Buffett really meant it.
“He was always in our corner and it was pretty amazing to have his support,’’ Suit said. “He really honored his word over the years.’’
Today, Suit’s daughter Piper is 15 and doing well, spending time as a high school cheerleader and enjoying life while dealing with the disease. Although she has never met Buffett, her dad credits the singer with enhancing the foundation.
Suit is also quick to point out that he certainly wasn’t best friends with Buffett. Theirs was “a really easy-going casual relationship,’’ he said, a bartender taking care of a customer and the customer taking care of the bartender.
“I didn't see him a lot,’’ he said. “But the little time we had together was really special and we made the most of it.’’
Like most Parrotheads across the world, Suit shed a few tears when Buffett died Sept. 1 at age 76 from Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare and aggressive skin cancer, with which he had been diagnosed four years earlier.
Rather than cry about the loss of a generous and humble folk hero whose infectious island-vibe music touched millions, he is organizing a local celebration of Buffett’s life.
On Sept. 24, a Sunday morning, at least 100 people are expected to show up on the beach at the Lake Worth Beach Casino for what’s being billed as “a paddle out ceremony to honor Jimmy Buffett.’’
Participants will gather in a circle just south of the Lake Worth Pier at 8 a.m. before paddling out together toward the breakers on surfboards, paddleboards and watercraft. (It’s the same beach spot where the Crossing for Cystic Fibrosis launches every year; the next one is scheduled for the week of June 19, 2024.)
Josh Ferris, a musician friend of Suit’s, will bring an acoustic guitar and perform the Buffett classic “A Pirate Looks at 40.’’
“We will have flowers for people to take as an offering for the ocean or for him and to say a prayer,’’ Suit said. “I’ll tell stories like the ones I shared with you. We will toss flowers, splash around a lot and have a celebratory moment in the ocean, which he loved so much, and just honor him and give him the time that he deserves.’’
The ceremony will end by 10 a.m. but Suit hopes the party continues at Benny’s on the Beach, the popular bar/eatery on the pier.
“I think (Buffett) would love it,’’ he said. “I think it would be something he would appreciate.’’
One story Suit plans to share at the paddle out will be about the time Buffett invited him to go surfing.
“It was my birthday,’’ he recalled. “We were out there off Palm Beach. There were just three of us in the water. He was so playful. He was on a stand-up paddle surfboard. He would catch a wave and come riding by me, and I was sitting down on a traditional prone board in the water, and he would stick a paddle out to get, like, a fist bump, like a high five, and he’d paddle back out.
“And he was singing lyrics. He was singing ‘Margaritaville’ in the lineup (the area past where the waves are breaking and surfers sit and wait for the perfect set) and he was changing the lyrics. Instead of singing ‘stepped on a pop top,’ he would come up with another lyric that fit the melody but he would change it. It was just so interesting: So this is Jimmy Buffett in the lineup! This is what he does!
“I remember when I got in the car and drove away, I just cried. I was so emotional: ‘I can’t believe that just happened!’ I knew it was a really special moment, an amazing experience to surf with one of my heroes, something I would never forget.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.