Passing Through Town... Jimmy Buffett's Longtime Keyboardist, Michael Utley

B on Hawaii Sits Down With This Coral Reefer and Chats About Career Highlights & What's Still to Come

Passing Through Town... Jimmy Buffett's Longtime Keyboardist, Michael Utley

What began as a distracting itch nearly 40 years ago has blossomed in to the lifelong pursuit for musician Michael Utley. In fact, this keyboardist and self-proclaimed “product of the Nashville and Memphis rhythm and blues scenes” had his sights set on a life studying the creature habits of, well, creatures. We sat down with Utley on a recent pass-through of Honolulu, while on tour with Jimmy Buffett.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, yet having spent the majority of his adult life in Los Angeles, Utley studied zoology during his college years. Having always played piano and worked in bands to pay bills, he decided to “take a shot at the music thing”, just to satisfy the urge without any future regret. In addition to animals, Utley had been studying the chops of Ray Charles, Alan Toussaint, Jerry Lee Lewis and Booker T. and the MGs.

He moved to Memphis, and eventually on to Miami, where he fell in to a studio house band gig, honing his skills in the Dixie Flyers. The band served as the rhythm section for many of Atlantic Records early stars of the 1970s. Utley found himself laying down tracks with Rita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson and Jackson Browne, to name a few.

“I have great memories of working with Kris [Kristofferson] and Barbara [Streisand] on “A Star Is Born”. It was a really amazing experience,” said Utley.

In 1973, Utley was cutting an album for the up-and-coming Jerry Jeff Walker in Miami, when a mutual friend introduced him to a relatively unknown singer-songwriter (“What we used to call them back in the day,” said Utley). His name was Jimmy Buffett, and he’d been traveling the country with an acoustic guitar and a sizable songbook. Directly following a stint at L.A.’s Troubadour venue, famous for upstart folksingers, Buffett asked Utley to join him at the ABC-Dunhill studio, for the cutting his second album.

The product of this session was Buffett’s “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean”, and it essentially put Buffett on the map.
Over the next two decades, Utley played on every successive Buffett album, having produced ten of them. In the final months of 1975, Buffett had officially formed a tight crew of musicians he dubbed “The Coral Reefer Band”. Although he had already toured and played studio gigs with them, Utley didn’t officially commit to being a full time “Coral Reefer” until 1981.

“I love Jimmy’s songwriting,” Utley shared. “I’m also very big in to the producing aspect of Jimmy’s work. He’s very giving, and really lets us voice our ideas. It makes for a great working relationship. He’s very open.”

Acknowledging that Buffett’s diversity and openness to all kinds of music led both he and his band down some unexpected roads has all been a part of the adventure. In the mid-1970s Utley got the opportunity to sit and play with one of this long time idols, Dr. John.

Over the years there have been numerous highlights outside of the Coral Reefers, much of which Utley achieved due to his reputation as a top-notch producer. In 1988, Utley was invited to join rock luminary Roy Orbison for what was hailed as “A Black and White Night”: A live recording with Orbison and Utley that included performances by Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, K.D. Lang, Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen.

Yet surprisingly, it was a slightly less star-studded event that struck a home run with the keyboardist. Nearly three years ago, Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band were invited to play a benefit concert for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

“New Orleans is the most northern point of the Caribbean,” Utley is famous for saying. “It’s music is real similar.”

The venue for this benefit was Wrigley Field in Chicago. Utley had been a Chicago Cubs fan his entire life. Having followed the team throughout his childhood, he noted the honor it was to walk out on to the infield at Wrigley, waving at the cheering crowd, where he sat many times as a child.

When chatting about the evolution of his playing style, Utley speaks candidly about the education he’s received in his years behind the keys.

“I was an R&B player from Memphis, and I quickly learned the New Orleans thing. Real obscure calypso stuff, the works. Now with Jimmy I’ve expanded in to this Caribbean thing. I’m always learning new things. In fact, I learned something new tonight!” added Utley.

When not touring with Buffett, Utley has put most of his time in to a project called “Club Trini”; an instrumental band fronted by himself and fellow Coral Reefer, Robert Greenwich, who plays steel drums. The material is mostly original, although live shows are peppered with Buffett classics. Club Trini has six albums released to date, and the themes revolve around an obscure form of Trinidadian drumming (where Greenwich hails from).

On the horizon, Utley is looking forward to getting in to the studio to work on new material with Buffett and the band. The group travels together to Hawai’i each year, most recently to mark the opening of Buffett’s first signature restaurant in Waikiki.

“New Orleans is the most northern point of the Caribbean,” Utley is famous for saying. “It’s music is real similar.”