(September 10, 2023).  Between them, the late Jimmy Buffett, the late Gary Wright and the late Steve Harwell (former frontman for the group Smash Mouth) recorded more than 55 studio albums, not to mention dozens more live and compilation sets documenting decades-worth of memorable tunes that were beloved by millions.

Combined, however, the three men only had eleven top-40 singles in their lead roles—plus two more for Buffett as a featured act—on the Billboard Hot 100, with only four of those songs making the top 10 and none going to No. 1.

Notwithstanding their modesty on the charts, the losses of these three well-known and highly respected musicians during the first four days of September caused tributes to pour in from devoted fans and media outlets everywhere.

Each man’s death alone was a sobering reminder of how fleeting life can be and how we take for granted that our favorite musicians will always be around to entertain us…until we wake up one day and they’re no longer here.  

Taken together, the rapid succession of their passings was like a gut-punch for music enthusiasts, many of whom barely had time to mourn one loss before the news of another’s death hit news feeds.

And even though each man had his own legacy with distinct styles of music and unique fan bases that likely weren’t traveling in the same circles, one thing these musicians had in common—besides their transitions happening within days of one another—was that their modest Billboard chart numbers belied their considerable impacts on music and, particularly in Buffett’s case, their devoted followings.

In fact, Buffett’s fans have been lobbying for the Mississippi-born “Margaritaville” singer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for years—a distinction neither he nor the other two men were afforded in their lifetimes.

Jimmy Buffett (1946 – 2023) died on September 1 of a rare skin cancer known as Merkel-cell carcinoma. He was 76.

Buffett, who popularized his signature “island escapism” sound with clever, laid-back tunes often touting tropical lifestyle themes, created a loyal legion of fans known as “Parrotheads.”  His carefree, party-friendly schtick made him a cultural icon to many and kept his fans happy for decades, despite generating only five top-40 hits from 1974-79.

Starting with 1974’s “Come Monday” and ending in ‘79 with “Fins,” Buffett’s top-40 hits included “Margaritaville” (his highest-ranked tune that peaked at No. 8 in ‘77), “Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”  With many of his hits charting during disco’s heyday, only “Margaritaville” managed to climb above No. 30 on the Hot 100.

Other fan favorites that populated the late singer’s “Big Eight”—songs that Buffett’s performed at nearly every concert for decades—including “Volcano,” “A Pirate Looks At Forty,” and “Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” didn’t make it above No. 66 if they charted at all.  In fact, until he teamed with Alan Jackson as a featured act on “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” in 2003, Buffett went 23 years without even reaching the Hot 100.

Gary Wright’s chart career, arguably, was even more frustrating.

Wright had two No. 1-near misses with the synthesizer-driven smashes “Dream Weaver” and “Love Is Alive,” both of which went to No. 2 in 1976.  Despite their massive chart success, it would be another five years before he would see the top 40 again.

Gary Wright (1943-2023), 80, died Sept. 4 after a bout with dementia and Parkinson’s Disease.

That was in 1981 when the New Jersey native’s equally ethereal “Really Want To Know You”—a personal fave of this blogger’s—sparked an improbable but short-lived chart comeback. That mid-tempo rocker, which peaked at No. 16, once again placed Wright’s synthesizer wizardry front-and-center while foreshadowing the early-80s synth-pop explosion that characterized the rest of the decade, even though the single sadly marked the end of Wright’s top-40 career.

Smash Mouth’s Steve Harwell, who led on anthems like “All Star” and “Walking In The Sun,” provided the soundtrack to a younger generation than the Baby Boomers and early Gen-Xers that Buffett and Wright originally played to, with the group’s fun-sounding hits being more aligned with Buffett’s comedic style than Wright’s more spiritual one.

The California band’s energetic pop-rock sound became emblematic of the late ’90s and early 2000s, with many late Gen-Xers and Millennials coming of age while rocking out to the group’s fun, melody-driven, singalong anthems.

But, like Buffett and Wright, Smash Mouth had only a handful of top-40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100–three to be exact—although popular hit songs like “Walking On The Sun” and “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” were denied chart entry (the individual songs weren’t commercially available as physical singles, making them ineligible for the Hot 100 under chart rules before 1999).

The three that made it were “All Star,” “Then The Morning Comes” (both in 1999), and a remake of the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” (2001).  “All Star” (No. 4 peak) was the biggest of these, buoyed by its infectious melody and chorus and Harwell’s distinctive voice and charisma as the band’s frontman.

Smash Mouth’s Steve Harwell (foreground; 1967-2023) died at age 56 on September 4 of acute liver failure caused by chronic alcohol abuse.

“All Star” became an even greater phenomenon with its later inclusion in the soundtrack of the animated movie “Shrek,” which further brought the tune to life and solidified its elite place in pop culture.

With the momentum of “All Star” and the other hits behind them, it’s a small wonder that Smash Mouth didn’t accumulate even more chart success in the 2000’s and beyond.  But as musical styles changed (hip-hop and R&B swept many rock-leaning pop acts off of mainstream radio playlists in the early-to-mid 2000s), Smash Mouth’s ska punk sound didn’t fit many pop radio formats and the group became a chart casualty.

After 2001’s “I’m A Believer,” none of the band’s singles even made the Hot 100.

Still, Smash Mouth had a loyal following and the band successfully toured in support of their subsequent releases for decades to come (Harwell left the group in 2021 after his reported illnesses, some of which were attributed to alcohol abuse).

Despite their relatively modest chart successes, Buffett, Harwell and Wright undeniably left behind enduring legacies that continue to resonate with music lovers worldwide, reminding us that sometimes, it’s the cultural impact that truly defines a musician’s greatness. 

Their lasting impact on the world of music, informed by memorable song catalogs that their fans won’t soon forget, extends far beyond any Billboard rankings.

May all three of these great musicians rest in peace.

Jimmy Buffett (December 25, 1946 – September 1, 2023)

Steve Harwell (January 9, 1967 – September 4, 2023)

Gary Wright (April 26, 1943 – September 4, 2023)

Jimmy Buffett (1946-2023)


DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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