There’s a good reason Jimmy Buffett was the face of the 2011 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – its poster, especially. And it had nothing to do with him being one of its headlining performers alongside Willie Nelson, Robert Plant and Bon Jovi.
Garland Robinette painted a grinning, golden-haired, mustached Buffett into that Crescent City canvas because of its central place in the singer-songwriter’s origin story. As Buffett put it in his 1998 biography, A Pirate Looks at Fifty, “The time I spent working and living in the French Quarter in 1967 changed my entire life.” Pages of that freewheeling book are devoted to those days in New Orleans – being “a hippie and a musician,” busking for spare change on street corners, smoking dope and losing his virginity, learning about life and creating “a façade of irreverence toward death.”
Bud Brimberg – who, in 1975, produced Jazz Fest’s first numbered, limited edition silk-screen poster – commissioned Robinette to paint the 2011 poster. And for Robinette, a gifted painter and beloved Crescent City media personality, it just made simple sense to put Buffett back on one of those Quarter corners playing for tips, a “Will Work 4 Gumbo” sign leaning against his guitar case. A figure lurks in the background, walking past and glancing back – 2011 Jimmy checking in on his younger self.
“There was a specific corner where he was a street musician,” the 80-year-old Robinette says. He used as his inspiration a 1970s photo of Buffett Life magazine repurposed for its special issue honoring the “Margaritaville” singer-songwriter upon his death on Sept. 1 from Merkel Cell Skin Cancer. “I read a lot about him preparing for the portrait – even talked to him on the phone a couple of times, trying to get the flavor. He was great. And in the end, he said, ‘Do what you want to do.’”
Robinette’s finished work, Busking Out: Becoming Jimmy Buffet, was a smash hit; today, prints still sell for big money.
For the first time – and for an extraordinary reason – Robinette’s painting will be auctioned as a centerpiece of Heritage’s Music Memorabilia & Concert Posters Signature Auction taking place November 18-20. With Robinette’s blessings, the work has been consigned by Adele and Mark Foster, who bought the piece from Robinette. “We absolutely love the painting,” says Adele, a longtime history teacher in New Orleans.
Adele didn’t know Robinette when she bought the Buffett painting. Still, she certainly knew of him: He’d been a presence on New Orleans TV and radio for decades, and she occasionally called into his WWL-AM radio show to discuss their shared interest in Louisiana’s coastal erosion. During Robinette’s tenure on WWL, he also garnered a national audience when Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Louisiana coast on Aug. 29, 2005. As the Columbia Journalism Review would later write, “The night of the storm, he stayed on the air even as the windows in WWL’s downtown broadcast studio blew out. In the days and weeks that followed, he would sometimes broadcast twelve hours straight or more, working from a studio the size of a broom closet at WWL’s makeshift studio in Baton Rouge.”
Coincidentally, Foster managed a thrift store – proceeds from which funded the St. Francis Animal Sanctuary – next door to the art studio out of which Robinette had worked. She noticed the painting for sale and purchased it – because she adored Robinette, and her husband Mark is a big Buffett fan.
The painting was celebrated upon its debut as Jazz Fest’s poster in 2011. Longtime Times-Picayune arts writer Doug McCash noted that, as always, some folks were unhappy it wasn’t New Orleans-y enough (“It frustrates … those who crave a poster as hot-blooded as the music and city it represents”). But he hailed Robinette’s depiction of Buffett as “quietly compelling,” and noted that he captured “Buffett’s sunny persona perfectly with what seems to be a beam of celestial light piercing the steamy south Louisiana sky.”
Wrote McCash, “Robinette’s somber handling of the balconied Creole townhouse in the background is a nice contrast with the cascade of buoyant colors in Buffett’s Hawaiian shirt and the scarlet parrot fluttering in the distance.”
Robinette says painting Buffett’s portrait was no easy thing. At the time, he, too, was combatting a deadly autoimmune disorder likely caused by his exposure to Agent Orange during his service in Vietnam.
“I painted Buffett’s portrait while I was sick in bed every night,” he says, “I got up, painted, went to bed, got up, painted, went to bed. The pain was excruciating. But it was all worth it, especially now. You do a painting and hope somebody who enjoys it will get it. And then to find out that the painting may mean more than it had before because of a life-threatening situation is pretty extraordinary. For me, art has been miracle after miracle after miracle. It’s absolutely amazing.”
Excerpts from Buddy Iahn's article for Music Universe, October 26, 2023.