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Singer Jimmy Buffett recommended for license by Nevada gaming regulators

Singer Jimmy Buffett spent roughly 15 minutes penning the lyrics to “Margaritaville” back in 1977.

It was time well-spent.

The song, about a man finding solace in “that frozen concoction that helps me hang on” after a failed relationship, has since become an international conglomerate, spawning retail stores, restaurants, consumer products and casinos.

Buffett credited an editor from Billboard magazine with advising him to protect his work, which prompted him to copyright the song after discovering a shop in Key West, Fla., was selling bootleg “Margaritaville” T-shirts.

“They didn’t even spell my name right,” Buffett told the Nevada Gaming Control Board on Wednesday. “The road to success is littered with wrecks. Few people get this far.”

The three-member regulatory panel unanimously recommended licensing for Margaritaville Holdings to share in gaming revenues earned by the Margaritaville casino in the Flamingo.

Buffett, 65, is chairman of the Palm Beach, Fla.-based company that owns the Margaritaville brand and has operated a Margaritaville restaurant at the Flamingo since 2003.

The 15,000-square-foot casino opened in the fall with 220 slot machines, 22 gaming tables and the centerpiece 5 O’Clock Somewhere bar between the restaurant and the main casino.

The Flamingo operates the casino. Margaritaville Holdings will share a percentage of the gaming revenues based on the casino’s performance.

The Flamingo section marked the company’s first Margaritaville-brand casino. Two stand-alone Margaritaville casinos are under construction in Biloxi, Miss., and Bossier City, La.

The 45-minute appearance before the control board by Buffett and company officials Wednesday was a combination of official business, celebrity interview and story-telling session that fell between concert appearances in California.

“This is like grown-up stuff,” Buffett said after the hearing. “(A gaming license) is a really big thing for me that I will take very seriously. We’ve had success, but we’re going to have fun also.”

While most people think of Buffett as the personification of laid-back “island escapism” most at home in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt, the singer/best-selling author/entrepreneur appeared before the board in business casual attire.

When control board Chairman Mark Lipparelli asked Buffett to come forward for questioning, he jokingly told attorney Michael Bonner to step aside.

“I can’t resist the pun. Fins to the left, fins to the right,” Lipparelli said in reference to a Buffett song, “Fins,” and to the number of lawyers in the room.

The Margaritaville casino at the Flamingo was created because of the success of the restaurant, which has a deck overlooking the Strip and is one of the company’s top revenue producing locations.

Buffett said that he originally offered the restaurant idea to the MGM Grand, where he annually performs in the Grand Garden. Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse told him the largest crowds at his MGM Grand restaurant came when Buffett performed, he said.

“It was between us and an Irish pub, and they went with the Irish pub,” Buffett said. “I wonder where the guy who made that decision is working now.”

Buffett’s songs, including such hits as “A Pirate Looks at 40,” “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” and “Come Monday,” are described as autobiographical. So it wasn’t surprising that Nevada gaming regulators asked about a couple of incidents such as the time a plane Buffett was flying was mistaken for a drug runner by the Jamaican military.

“They fired 115 times and only hit us twice,” Buffett said.

In France, Buffett was once detained by authorities and accused of having the drug Ecstasy, which turned out to be medication for a heart palpitation.

He laughed both stories off for the control board.

“We were all wild in our younger days,” Buffett said after the hearing.

One of Margaritaville’s board members, Michael Utley, a keyboard player and musical director of Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band who has spent 40 years with the singer, was questioned about his degree in zoology.

“I have to ask about that,” control board member A.G. Burnett said.

Utley said he decided he liked music better than a career in medicine.

Margaritaville casinos were devised as way to help the Mississippi Gulf Coast recover after Hurricane Katrina wiped out the gaming market in Biloxi in 2005. An initial deal in Biloxi with Harrah’s Entertainment fell apart.

However, the Margaritaville Casino & Restaurant Biloxi is expected to open by summer on the eastern tip of Biloxi’s Back Bay. The resort will have a 26,000 square-foot casino with a marina with facilities for 12 vessels and tie-up space for an additional 30 to 40 boats.

The Margaritaville Bossier City is expected to open in the second half of 2013 and will have 175 slot machines and 38 table games. It will be north of the Louisiana Boardwalk.

The Nevada Gaming Commission will make a final ruling on the license on March 22.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

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