Photo 1: (left to right: Jay Stewart, Jimmy Buffett, Carol Merrill, July 30, 1986 in the Green Room at the Greek Theater, Los Angeles, California.
Photo 2: (left to right: John Audette, Carol Merrill, Jay Stewart, July 30, 1986, in the Green Room at the Greek Theater, Los Angeles, California.
Images Copyright © 2023 by John R. Audette. All Rights Reserved.
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By John R. Audette*
September 8, 2023
Copyright © 2023 by John R. Audette
All Rights Reserved
In December 1974, Jimmy Buffett released his fifth studio album entitled “A1A.” It featured a song entitled “Door Number Three,” co-written by him and Steve Goodman, which appeared on Side A, in the number two position. “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” also made its debut on this heralded album.
As “Door Number Three” revealed, before Jimmy fell in love with and married Jane Slagsvol in 1977, he fell in love with another amazing beauty, model Carol Merrill, from the popular television game show “Let’s Make A Deal,” which aired on NBC from 1963-1968 and then ABC from 1969-1976, hosted by Monty Hall, the show’s beloved Master of Ceremonies. Actor Jay Stewart was the show’s announcer.
Although he and Carol had never met, Jimmy was a fan of the show. He often tuned in specifically to watch Carol, whose striking beauty had an entrancing impact on him. Jimmy fell in love with Carol from afar strictly from her appearance on television, and although she was his dream-girl from a distance, the two had never actually met in person. But still, Jimmy confessed his love for her in the song’s lyrics:
“I don’t want what Jay’s got on his table, or the box Carol Merrill points to on the floor. No, I’ll hold out just as long as I am able, until I can unlock that lucky door. Well, she’s no big deal to most folks, but she’s everything to me, ‘cause my whole world lies waiting behind door number three.”
Through his music, Jimmy gave so much to me and to millions around the world. So, it was my great privilege to give something back to him, a special surprise gift in return, which I was honored to do on Wednesday night, July 30, 1986. It took place at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, California, before a sold-out audience of over 6,000 adoring fans. Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band were performing that night as part of the “Floridays” tour.
My younger brother Ron introduced me to Jimmy’s music in May 1979. For my birthday that year, he gave me a cassette tape carrying case filled with cassette tapes of every Jimmy Buffett album that had been released up to that time. Ron was an avid ocean-loving sailor, a true to life pirate and a very free-spirited sun-worshipper. He made many adventurous trips down island and operated strictly on island time (man soon come.) He was usually to be found on deck “el buffo” without a stitch of clothing and with no hat or sunscreen either, singing along with Jimmy’s music to the top of his lungs.
Ron surely was an authentic bohemian. He had “a Caribbean soul he could barely control.” He was the type of character Jimmy often wrote about who “could not quite find his occupation in the 20th century.” So, needless to say, Jimmy Buffett was Ron’s one and only true-life hero. Through Jimmy’s sun-soaked salt water-filled music, Ron felt totally understood and appreciated. Sadly, Ron died on October 3, 2019 at age 61. Strangely, he had the same rare diagnosis as Jimmy, highly aggressive skin cancer.
Fortuitously, I met Jimmy in 1985 through a mutual friend. After that initial meeting, I quickly became a devoted concert-goer whenever he played, usually at venues near my home in South Florida. Typically, I was privileged to receive full access back stage passes, which made the experience of seeing Jimmy perform live that much more surreal. I was privileged to meet various members of the Coral Reefer Band along the way, including Debra McCall, Robert Greenidge, Matt Betton, Michael Utley, Greg “Fingers” Taylor and Timothy B. Schmit, long time bass player for the Eagles, at a Miami Marine Stadium gig.
In May 1986, I found out Jimmy would be performing at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles at the end of July. In one fleeting magical moment, I was inspired to call my friend Carol Merrill, who lived in the Los Angeles area at the time. I met her previously through a mutual friend. She knew about the song in which Jimmy mentioned her, and although we had never discussed Jimmy or the song before, I asked her if she would like to meet him at the Greek Theater on July 30, 1986 during and/or after his show.
Without hesitation, Carol excitedly accepted my invitation. She loved the idea. To my surprise, she then asked if she could invite Jay Stewart to join us for the occasion. Absolutely, I replied. I then asked Carol if she and Jay would be willing to go out on stage during the song’s performance with props to re-create their Let’s Make A Deal” skit. Graciously and with considerable humility, she said she would be glad to do so. She felt certain Jay would be agreeable as well, and he was.
Soon after I finished talking with Carol, I placed a call to Bobby Lieberman, Jimmy’s tour manager at the time. I explained to Bobby that I wanted to arrange a surprise gift for Jimmy on that occasion. I eagerly described my idea to him. He loved it, every bit of it. He said “Door Number Three” was not on the set list for the “Floridays” tour, but he would see to it that it was added it for that particular show. Bobby also arranged for Carol and Jay to be picked up at their respective residences in a chauffeured-driven stretch limo. They loved the special VIP treatment. I greeted them on their arrival in the “green room.”
Just before show-time, Bobby briefed the band discretely about what was going to take place. They were all sworn to secrecy. No one was to say a word about it to Jimmy beforehand. Everyone cooperated fully and so Jimmy had no clue about what would soon take place. Jay, Carol and I stayed backstage the whole time out of Jimmy’s line of sight. He did not know we were there.
Many photographs were taken that night to memorialize the occasion, two of which can be viewed along with this tribute to Jimmy at AffirmingGod.com. They can be found under the tab called “Extras.” This is a website dedicated to a book I recently wrote entitled “Loved by the Light,” which in large part, coincidentally, is intended to help people who are actively grieving the loss of a loved one.
My book also describes several other-worldly life-saving angel rescue encounters, much like what Jimmy experienced many times. He too had numerous close brushes with death throughout his life, including one where he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car, just as I did. He wrote about this in his book, “A Pirate Looks at Fifty,” a candid memoir. He wrote, “I have always felt that I have a guardian angel riding on my shoulder. I am sure it is a she, and that when I really need her, she will bail my ass out.”
When the band started playing “Door Number Three,” out onto the stage walked Carol Merrill and Jay Stewart, carrying their props to ad lib the show’s format. Jimmy was thunderstruck, but he did not miss a note, a chord or a lyric. With classic Buffett ease, style and grace, he stayed fully composed in the flow of the moment. The audience went absolutely crazy. They loved every second of it. They rose to their feet at the end of the performance to give Carol, Jay, Jimmy and the band a sustained standing ovation.
When the show ended, we all joined Jimmy in his dressing room, which is when he was formally introduced to his fantasy girl from days gone by. It was quite a scene, and other noteworthy celebrities were on hand to enjoy the moment with us, including John Candy, Mick Fleetwood, Harry Dean Stanton and others.
Jimmy seemed elated to meet Carol, finally, but their fondness for each other had to remain unrequited. Jimmy, then age 39, was married to Jane, and Carol, then age 45, was married to Mark. But, still, it was fascinating for me to see art imitating life, or rather life imitating art. Beyond that, it was rewarding to see Jimmy so joyful. I felt a sense of satisfaction that he received a little something back for the much he gave to others not just through his music, but his charismatic persona, which radiated across the globe.
Carol is alive and well, now age 82, last reported living in Oahu, Hawaii. Jay, tragically, committed suicide at age 71 on September 17, 1989 in Los Angeles. I can just imagine that he was there on the other side as part of Jimmy’s vast welcoming committee when he made his transition to offer him a choice of door number one, number two or number three, or to choose instead the item on the tray he was holding.
I had many meetings with Jimmy over the years, some backstage before and after shows, and others to pitch him songs I wrote or ideas for various business ventures. There was one business proposal in particular that he liked very much, which we discussed at length in 1988. It was an opportunity for him to be the regular headliner at a proposed annual special event in South Beach, Florida, and to serve as the regular Grand Marshall of a festive annual parade that would kick things off in grand style. This proposed major event was to be Miami’s answer to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Rio’s Carnival.
The proposed venue was to be an expansive stretch of beach at Lummus Park. It was to feature multiple stages, a sailboat regatta, a crowd-pleasing hunt for buried pirate treasure, and much more. I conceived this idea long before the “art deco district” of South Beach experienced its dramatic turnaround. An integral part of the plan was to be a sweeping real estate deal that would revitalize the area. It was aimed especially at refurbishing the unique “art deco” hotels, which back then were in terrible shape. Jimmy expressed great interest in doing this if and when funding ever materialized, but it never did.
Among songs I shared with him, Jimmy liked one I wrote called “Love Knocks.” The chorus was “Love knocks. Open the door. I’ll take you places you’ve never been before. Love knocks. Let me come in. I’ll be your best ever grand prize win.” He thought it was good, but he said to me, “John, do you really think you can write songs for Jimmy Buffett better than Jimmy Buffett can write songs for Jimmy Buffett?” That comment left me speechless and without a good response. I just shook my head to indicate a “no” answer. After that, I never again tried to encourage him to hear my songs or read my lyrics.
I last saw Jimmy in Palm Beach, Florida a few years ago at Nick & Johnnie’s restaurant. It was during summertime, mid-June as I recall. He was having a casual lunch there with his son, Cameron, a Mahi fish sandwich, not a cheeseburger. Our tables, as fate would have it, were located right next to each other. Jimmy always tried his best to appear inconspicuous and incognito when he was out in public, but his was a beautiful shining face I could never forget. So, when he finished eating his meal, after Cameron paid the check, I went over to say hello. We talked about that special night in July 1986. I was gratified that he remembered it given a lifetime full of highly memorable moments.
He graciously thanked me, once more, for making that special memory possible. I then thanked him, profusely, for making possible so many more special memories, not only for me, but for all his fans world-wide. He then dashed off with his son to drive down to Miami to the American Airlines Arena, not to perform a concert, but to attend a Miami Heat play-off game. It would be the last time I would ever see Jimmy in this lifetime, much to my deep sadness.
Jimmy was a true original. He invented his own trailblazing genre, probably never meaning to do anything of the sort. He probably meant only to be himself, to be true to himself. But in the process, tens of millions fell in love with him and his uplifting music, including me and my late brother Ron. I have been to many concerts in my lifetime, all of the greats, but none compared to the shows Jimmy put on, time after time. The rapport he achieved with his audiences was unparalleled. He was inarguably the consummate showman of our time, a true musical magi, a real crowd-pleaser, like none before or after.
When news of Jimmy’s passing came to me on Friday night, September 1, 2023, it was soul-crushing, not only for me, but for millions across the globe. A big part of us died with Jimmy, and no one can step forward to pick up the fallen standard. Truly, he was an extraordinary and irreplaceable artist. The world has lost some of its luster and color without him in it all of a sudden, but the music he left behind for us is full of nourishment. It will help carry us along in our respective journeys wherever they may take us.
Jimmy poignantly expressed sadness at the passing of John Wayne in his song “Incommunicado.” His lyrics now seem appropriate for this occasion. He sang, “I can’t believe the old man’s gone.” None of us can believe Jimmy’s gone either, taken from us and silenced way too soon. Like John Wayne, too lived a life of “such bravado.” He too lived life large and, in the process, became much larger than life. Through his endearing music, he will live on in our hearts forever. “Bubbles up,” Jimmy!
To end on a brighter note, another Jimmy Buffett song comes to mind, “Defying Gravity,” where Jimmy sang, “I live on a big round ball. I never do dream I may fall. And even one day if I do, well, I’ll jump up and smile back at you…And even the high must lay low. When I do fall I will be glad to go. Yes, when I do fall, I will be glad to go.” Godspeed Jimmy. Keep smiling back at us through your wonderful music. Thank you for enriching us all beyond measure. Happy trails to you dear man, until we meet again.