Tom Battista’s phone started beeping at 3 a.m. Saturday. It was people from “the tour” calling to tell him that legendary singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who penned the hit song “Margaritaville,” had died.
“I’ve choked up a couple times,” Battista says from his Indianapolis home. “I think of all the joy he’s brought to so many people over the years.”
Buffett, 76, died of an aggressive form of skin cancer that was diagnosed four years ago but not shared publicly until after his death. Health issues, however, had prompted Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band to cancel several performances starting last fall. His last full concert was in May. “They were very secretive about it,” Battista recalls. “We knew it had to be something bad.”
Battista, 73, who owns Bluebeard restaurant and Amelia’s Bread and brought Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie to Windsor Park, was Buffett’s stage manager for 30 years, retiring last October. He worked the summer concert tour when Buffett’s shows were often a week or two apart, allowing Battista and other crew to return home to their families between shows. “I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have done that,” he says. “Other tours were really hard, heavy … and this was like the most laidback, the most fun, and the least amount of work. And I like work.” Plus, Battista had a retirement fund and was paid well.
Being a stage manager, however, was never part of his plan. Battista majored in history at Indiana University. He worked construction throughout high school and college and wasn’t a big music fan. But when he heard a concert promoter was desperate for help setting up a stage at the old Bush Stadium, he signed on. “I didn’t care about music, I never worked a show before,” he says. But the concert went off without a hitch and soon others were calling, including David Bowie’s people and then Buffett’s.
Battista says Buffett, whose billion-dollar empire also included restaurants, hotels, and casinos, took great care of his crew. He knew their names, as well as details about them and their families. “He ate dinner with us every day, not like a prima donna,” Battista says. “We had pre-show parties, and I could invite all my friends. Then we’d have backstage parties.”
Battista understands why Buffett had such a loyal fan base—all the “Parrotheads” who’d show up in flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts. “Everybody could identify with him, everybody wanted to be a beach bum,” Battista says. “That’s what he was … having fun and singing about it.”
While the Parrotheads likely knew the lyrics to almost every song, Battista did not, except for maybe “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
“Let’s see … I like mine with lettuce, tomato, and fried potatoes or something like that?” he laughs.
Though he heard Buffett’s playlist thousands of times, he says, “I would never listen. I was paying attention to a lot of other things: Are there issues? Is everything going well? Will the stagehands be here to take everything down?” Buffett would tease him about it. “Jimmy gave me an entire notebook of all his songs and told me to memorize it,” he recalls.
While Battista says the musician lived up to his reputation as a partier, when it came to performing, “He was always professional, always ready. He might be five minutes late sometimes, but that’s nothing.”
Buffett played Indianapolis at least 25 times during Battista’s career as stage manager. Though the musician never made it to Bluebeard because of his schedule, he would give a shout-out during his Indy shows. As an image of Bluebeard with Tom and his wife Shari appeared on a video screen, Buffett would say, “‘Come to Bluebeard’ or ‘Tom’s buying drinks after the show,’ jokes like that,” Battista says.
He will always remember Buffett as not just a gifted artist but a genuine and generous person.
So, after learning of Buffett’s death, Battista and his wife saluted him in true Parrothead style. They popped open the tequila, found their “long-lost shaker of salt,” made margaritas, and raised a toast to the singer, songwriter, and longtime friend.