The night Jimmy Buffett played the Strip

Betty BeanKnox Scene

When the sad news of Jimmy Buffett’s death hit on Labor Day weekend, it sent a lot of us spiraling down memory lane, trying to answer the essential question for those of us of a certain age who grew up in Knoxville:

Did Buffett ever play the Strip?

Jimmy Buffett

This is not a stupid question. He was working in Nashville back then, and lots of his soon-to-be-famous contemporaries made their way over the Plateau to perform here. But none of the regulars on the online nostalgia sites could remember such an occurrence. Civic Coliseum, Stokely Athletic Center, UT Music Hall gigs, yes. But the Cumberland Avenue venues? Sadly, no – which seemed like such a shame. The creator of dive bar anthems like “Why don’t we get drunk…” * was a natural for the Strip’s environment (* he at first claimed that a guy named Marvin Gardens had written it – probably didn’t want to embarrass his mama).

Something kept nibbling around the edges of my memory telling me that we were missing something, so I called my go-to ’70s Strip history guy, Dennis Francis, who left his home in Buffalo in March 1970 to attend law school at the University of Tennessee and worked as a bartender in numerous local establishments.


By 1971, Francis was working at the Place, a music/pool hall in the 1900 block of Cumberland Avenue. It had a pool table in the front window and a small beer store in the front. Knoxville musicians like Maggie Longmire played there, plus up-and-coming regional stars like the Amazing Rhythm Aces and other acts that were passing through. Some would come in late after playing in the city’s big venues and play for a cut of the receipts. One night, Francis recalls, a guy named Buffett agreed to play a late-night gig in return for half the door, which totaled $8, all of which he gave Buffet when he realized that half of the take wouldn’t even buy enough gas to get back to Nashville.

“We mispronounced his name; called him Buf-Fay. I was amazed that someone with so much talent was playing at the Place. I remember that his drummer, Mike, was from Wisconsin and had a big scar on his face. It was 50 cents to get in, and Jimmy got $8. Afterward, we sat on a picnic table, had a beer and talked about being altar boys. He was extremely charismatic, and he put on a fabulous show. More country-influenced than his later stuff.”

Fast forward to the early 2000s. Francis’s friend Diana Nelson, a registered nurse he’d met when they both worked at Eastern State Hospital (later renamed Lakeshore; Francis was the hospital’s lawyer), called and said she and her husband not only had tickets to see Jimmy Buffett, who was performing that night at UT, but also had a backstage pass. She invited Francis to join them, and he accepted.

So, he went to the show and remembers watching Buffett greet fans afterward.

“We waited awhile, and then all of a sudden, the largest African American man – Jimmy Buffett’s bodyguard – that I’d ever seen comes out and tells Diana they’re ready for her backstage. When Jimmy sees Diana the first words out of his mouth were, ‘How’s your Mama?’ They talked for a while and I remember he said he’d hired a bunch of young guitar players to appeal to his fanbase which was getting younger while the band aged. He was a very shrewd businessman. When he talked to me, I told him, ‘I paid you $8 one night.’”

Buffett laughed and said he remembered.

“Worst s***hole I ever played in.”

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for


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