After a couple more similar excursions into technical showmanship, Johnson stands up from the piano and pulls out two bottles of wine from under the bench. The label reads, “Flo.” This is Johnson’s newly minted personal brand. “Jazz and wine go together,” he tells the crowd. He announces a contest: The best tweet to @flowines will receive a “Flo-Pack” — a bottle of red, a bottle of white and three of Johnson’s CDs.
The list of famous names on bottles includes racer Mario Andretti, actress Drew Barrymore and golfers Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman. Mike Ditka has a wine. Among musicians: Dave Matthews, Madonna, Motley Crue’s Vince Neil, rapper Lil Jon and Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall. There is even, sadly, a Hitler wine. But you are unlikely to find any of the above celebs signing bottles and playing concerts in Giant Food parking lots. Such shows are increasingly common on Johnson’s calendar, though, carrying the slogan, “Make your life better one sip and one sound at a time.”
Where most musicians look no further than their fingers on their instruments, expecting brilliance to be its own reward, Johnson is attempting to redefine “artist” in more job-centric terms. He scans the pages of Inc. Magazine and the career of billionaire businessman Richard Branson for inspiration and guidance. In an economy where even the winners of “American Idol” are not guaranteed strong album sales, Johnson’s business success makes him something of an exception.
Kris Ross, operations director for Blues Alley, says Johnson is “one of the few musicians who realizes that there’s a business to the music business.”
“It’s been a crazy couple years,” says Johnson, during which the musician-slash-businessman — or is it businessman-slash-musician? — launched his wine label and created the Delaware corporation Flo Brands, which supplies wines to major grocery chains such as Giant Food and SuperValu as well as to outlets serviced by Southern Wine and Spirits, the nation’s largest alcohol distributor.
In 2005, Johnson realized that the music industry was collapsing and asked himself, “What business am I really in?” His answer: the therapy business. “My job is, through music, to make your morning a little better, make your drive to work a little better,” he says, sounding like a Quiet Storm DJ, “. . . your drive home from work, cooking dinner, after dinner, late night — make it a little bit better.” This new self-definition led to the creation of Flo, “For the Love of.”