The annual February throwdown didn't start out as a Valentine's Day party.
"I just decided to have a house party that weekend," Chris Johnson says of the casual get-together he and his brother Wes started more than a quarter-century ago. The Johnson Valentine Bash has since become a rousing success beyond the brothers' wildest dreams. February 10 will mark the party's 26th iteration. The Johnsons will host the evening of music at Snug Harbor, featuring DJs Spaceboy and Godwin, along with a trio of bands — Party Battleship, the Mary Massie Band, and Chris and Wes' eclectic disco-soul outfit Hardcore Lounge. The proceeds, as they have for the past 15 years, will go to the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network, or RAIN.
The Johnson brothers' party actually started as an alternative to V-Day — a celebration for single people who felt overlooked on a holiday devoted to the glories of coupledom. "We were mostly single people going around grumbling, 'I hate Valentine's Day,'" Johnson remembers. So he and Wes threw a bash for their fellow lonely hearts at Chris' Charlotte home. The soiree became a charity benefit as it outgrew its house-party origins and bounced around to various music venues, past and present, including Petra's, the Visulite, the Steeple, Club Eden and CAST Theater's first location off Central Avenue. It's settled into Snug Harbor for the past two years.
Creative Loafing spoke with Johnson about the little party that could — an impromptu gathering that's beccme a Queen City music scene tradition.
Creative Loafing: When did you realize it was time to move the party out of your house?
- Chris Johnson. (Photo by Mary Massie)
Chris Johnson: For the first five years the party was at my house off Albemarle Road. Then I bought a house on Temple Street in 1996, and for five more years the party was at the house on Temple. The last year it was at the house, it was huge. There were between 100 and 150 people in my house. It was crazy. I put Michael Jackson's Off the Wall on my stereo and there were 50 people dancing in my living room at 3 in the morning, bouncing up and down. I remember getting worried about the floor caving in. Like, how many people can the house hold? I was at the Penguin several days later, talking to friends. A buddy of mine walked up to me and said, "Hey man, I saw your Lynyrd Skynyrd Street Survivors 8-track, and I almost took it. But then I said, 'Nah, that wouldn't be right.'"
He almost stole from me, but then he told me all about it? Wow! We knew we needed to move this thing out of the house.
Was your brother involved in the party from the beginning?
Wes has always been a part of it. We have different functions that we do. To use a TV analogy [Johnson has been a master control operator at WJZY for 26 years], I'm the producer and he's the creative services director. I set up the logistics, contacting the bands and the venue. Wes is usually in on the more creative end of it, [doing] graphic design and decorations. We have a creative partnership. It's the perfect division of labor. Last year he and his girlfriend built a photo booth.
How did you hook up with RAIN to make the parties a benefit?
I was at work at WJZY-TV and one of the sales people found out that I had this house party. She said, "I'm on the board of directors at RAIN. How do you feel about turning the party into a benefit for us?" I thought it was a really good cause, and I support what they do. I met with [RAIN's president and CEO] Debbie Warren, chatted with her about it, and decided to turn it into a fundraiser for RAIN. I think we've hit the $7,000 mark for money raised for RAIN in the course of 15 years. It feels good.
Your band with Wes, Hardcore Lounge, has played the parties since its inception. When did you guys start the band?
Our first gig was in 2001 at Café Bisou, where Nova's Bakery is now. We called ourselves the Full Moon Ensemble or something like that. At the end of our show, we turned around and said, "What do you think?" The owner of the cafe said, "I thought it was hardcore lounge!" And that was it. At first I didn't like the name because it's two different genres, hardcore and lounge. Then I did a Google search and nothing came up. That's when I thought, "I like it. That's what we'll call ourselves."
- Hardcore Lounge plays last year’s Valentine’s Day party at Snug Harbor. [Left to right] Mary Massie, Wes Johnson, Marco Heeter, Jen Hatley and Chris Johnson. (photo by Kim Hutchinson)
When people ask me about my music I tell them it's like all the music I listened to growing up. Very diverse. My first concert was Billy Preston and my second concert was the Atlanta Rhythm Section. So my music is somewhere in between those two — a little bit of soul and gospel and funk. Wes and I grew up liking show tunes and rock. This is a mixture of both.
What about the other bands playing this year's party?
The exciting thing about this show is that the opener is Party Battleship, John Morris' new [power-pop] outfit. I just approached Party Battleship and asked them if they would like to play with us, and they agreed to do it. In my eyes, any musical project that John Morris touches is good with me. I've always been a big fan of his.
This will also be the first solo gig for Mary Massie, who is a member of our band. She's fronting the Mary Massie Band. Basically, she is singing her songs. She started taking guitar lessons a couple of years ago, and she started writing songs. Rather than just integrating the songs into Hardcore Lounge, we decided to give Mary a forum. She's leading the side group and we're backing her up. Mary will also play with Hardcore Lounge that evening.
What do you like people to come away with after they've been to one of your parties?
People who don't have anything to do for Valentine's Day get bummed out because they don't have a date. I would like for them to feel like they did something fun. I'd like for them to forget it's Valentine's Day, and just enjoy themselves.
It's a party. There's more going on than just bands playing. We also have DJs. People are dancing. Even though I don't party that much myself these days, I want people to have a good time. It also feels good that I'm helping a good cause. Whatever money I make I give away. I get to help people. I took a house party, where people just came and carried on, and turned it into a fundraiser. I like that.