Two brothers who grew up in St. Louis now back up Buffett
while keeping tgheir own careers going

 By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

April 20, 2008

Members of Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefer
band (from left) Jim Mayer, Tina Gullickson,
Jimmy Buffett, Nadirah Shakoor and Peter
Mayer. The Mayers are brothers and former
St. Louisans
. Photo by Pamela Jones
The audience is a highlight of any Jimmy Buffett concert: a sea of color, grass skirts and coconut bras. And that's just the men.

Imagine the view from the stage.

"We walked out on stage for the first time, and it looked like a Fellini casting call,'' says former St. Louisan Peter Mayer, lead guitarist for Buffett's Coral Reefer Band since 1989. "I mean, it was strange costumes. You had lawyers in parrot outfits and doctors with shark fins on their heads. And of course, we were dressed in kind of late '80s, early '90s garb from the Thompson Twins to Peter Gabriel.''

"We'' refers to Mayer and the Coral Reefer rhythm section: fellow former St. Louisans Jim Mayer (bass) and Roger Guth (drums). Jim, Peter Mayer's brother, reports on Buffett's website that he almost couldn't play that first show in San Diego because he was laughing so hard at "a giant conga line wearing enough grass skirts to cover the set of South Pacific.''

The three will be back with the rest of the Coral Reefer Band on Thursday night at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, when Buffett appears here for the first time in eight years on the aptly named "Year of Still Here'' tour. St. Louis is the second stop on the tour.

For the Mayer brothers and Guth, who were a Warner Bros. recording act called PM, the Parrothead phenomenon was a surprise even after they were first hired to play on Buffett's 1989 album, "Off to See the Lizard.''

''We knew who Jimmy Buffett was, but we had no idea how popular he was or what kind of crowd came to the shows,'' Peter Mayer said by phone a couple of weeks ago before appearing with his band at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room. ''And he had actually instructed his crew not to tell us what was going on.''

What was going on was a combination happy hour and three-ring circus that has lasted more than 30 years, a summer event that didn't start rolling until Buffett had been recording for nearly a decade. And the band has become as important to Buffett's fans as the music, costumes, and food and drink that is shared among parking lot tailgaters hours before the show starts.

Many Parrotheads are still upset a decade after the original Coral Reefer, harmonica wizard Greg "Fingers'' Taylor, left the band. But it's a testament to Buffett's comfort level and judgment that each of his 11 players and singers are active recording artists and/or performers on their own.

It's an amazing band, and "that's a credit to Jimmy, that he's been able to keep that together,'' Mayer says. "He's an excellent leader.''

The Mayer brothers were born in India to parents who had gone there in 1949 as Lutheran missionaries. Peter Mayer's music and his view of the world were influenced by that experience.

"While I was in India, we didn't have TV,'' he says. "You know, there's so many amazing things to do when you take out that technology. TV has so much become an entertainer for us, and it's a great thing, it's a lot of fun. But without that, I was full-focused on listening to music and reading. I think that really helped my songwriting ability.''

The family returned to the United States in 1966 when Mayer, now 49, was 8 years old, and were transferred by the Missouri Synod to St. Louis in time for Mayer to attend middle school and Lutheran South High School.

But by the time "Margaritaville'' was a hit in the mid-'70s, Mayer was in high school and heavily into jazz guitar.

''I had all these friends - 'Hey, have you heard this song, man, ''Cheeseburger in Paradise,'' it's hilarious' - I was at that point forming my own band and playing in bands around St. Louis,'' Mayer says. ''I just heard it as a pop hit of that time. And it's just a funny, ironic twist that, add another 10 or 15 years, and all a sudden we'd be meeting up with this guy.''

During those 10 or 15 years, Mayer went to Webster University and studied music composition and theory and joined the school's jazz ensemble. After graduation, he stayed on and taught music. But after a few years, he was called to be a performer.

"I was starting to play in bands around town - From This Moment On, I played in - and I realized that if I wanted to play, I needed time to practice four, six, seven hours a day,'' Mayer says. ''And so I quit (Webster) ... and just started playing all the time.''

With brother Jim and Guth, PM began playing St. Louis clubs, sprinkling original songs into their sets of cover tunes by the likes of the Thompson Twins, Peter Gabriel and Crowded House. After a couple of years, they attracted the interest of the record labels and eventually signed with powerhouse Warner Bros.

Armed with a deal for one guaranteed album and an option for a half-dozen more, PM scored with its first single, ''Piece of Paradise,'' from its self-titled debut CD in 1988. The song, featuring background vocals from a young fellow Missourian named Sheryl Crow, made it to No. 8 on Billboard.

Unfortunately, but not uncommonly, the second single was a relative failure.

''We had really good success with 'Piece of Paradise,' '' Mayer says. ''(Top 40 DJ) Kasey Kasem and all these guys were talking about it and people were getting excited. Then, all of a sudden, the second single was released, probably the wrong song, and it just kind of went away. And Warner Bros. was like OK, that's done - next project.''

For the next few years, the trio chased another record deal. And while they continued to play for Buffett, they went their separate ways as performers, with Mayer forming the Peter Mayer Group.

Mayer decided that he wasn't going ''to wait my whole life for another major label. I want to play music. And if it means going down to the local club and getting a band to play, I'm going to do it. And I did that. I started touring around in a Dodge van and losing money. And an amazing thing happened: After a couple of years, the 13 people who showed up at clubs turned into 130 and then into 300.''

With Buffett, Mayer has been amazed at how much hard work goes into making it all look so easy and laid back.

''It's a real gift,'' Mayer says. ''I know it is, because I've been a performer for many years and never found it that easy.

''Jimmy is an entertainer. I asked him once when we were really new to the group, because we were kind of floored with the audience and all that, and said, 'What's the deal with this whole thing? How did you get into this?'

"And he said, 'Well, you know, Pete, I'm not a very good guitar player, and other people can out-sing me, but I'm a damn good Jimmy Buffett.'''