How Jon Bon Jovi Evolved from 'Runaway' to Rock Star CEO
Jon Bon Jovi is best known as the leader of the band Bon Jovi. Though named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in The World" in 1996, and its "Sexiest Rock Star" in 2000, the New Jersey native has long been much more than a pretty face.
Over the past three-and-a-half decades, the band’s music and “look” have evolved, maturing with aging fans while still attracting younger ones. Jon Bon Jovi has always treated the band like a business and is known for both his business savvy and philanthropy.
Avoiding the rock star/celebrity “bad boy” image, he instead embraces the life of a dedicated husband and father, and insists he lives a normal life despite his net worth of about $410 million.
Born John Francis Bongiovi, he planned to be a rock star since boyhood. He grew up in the New Jersey town of Sayreville, which he described to People as “a great working class, blue collar town you’d be proud to say you’re from.”
His parents, both former Marines, supported his goals. About spending time in bars, he says their attitude was, “At least we know where he is.” After leaving the service, his dad John became a hairdresser and was responsible for Jon’s hairstyles in the early years of his career. His mom Carol worked for a short time as a Playboy Bunny before becoming a florist.
His brothers also play a role in his business. Matthew runs the marketing and PR end, and Anthony, an accomplished video artist, is responsible for the “look” of the band’s stage shows.
Starting the Band
As a teen, he formed bands and played in bars, emulating his local heroes, Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny. In 1982, while working as an errand boy for his cousin’s recording studio, he recorded the aptly-named demo, “Runaway.”
This led to a new band, a name change, a record contract and, eventually, 21 albums with combined sales of more than 130 million copies.
Dedicated Family Man
In 1989, he quietly married his high school sweetheart, Dorothea Hurley. On a Friday night on tour in Los Angeles, he asked, she answered, they flew from to Las Vegas, got married, and returned to L.A. No one knew about it until the news broke on Monday.
The two have four children, who have grown up outside the spotlight and seem unimpressed by their celebrity dad. Talking with People Jon said, “Somehow I became the poster boy for long-married rock stars.” Pointing out that he is not the only one (Bono and Bruce have also been married a long time), he added, “I’ll gladly accept the mantle, because I’m so happy. I just know I got it right the first time.”
He’s an Award-Winning Artist
Jon was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009, and the band joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past April. Bon Jovi has been nominated for 58 music awards and received 25. The song “Blaze of Glory,” nominated for both an Oscar and Grammy, won the Golden Globe, Felix, and ASCAP awards.
Jon also has been recognized for his philanthropic work, including the 2014 Marian Anderson Award and the 2017 Service to America Leadership Award from the NAB Education Foundation.
He’s the CEO of the Band
Bon Jovi the band is not a democracy. While artistically, collaboration is important, when it comes to business, Jon is the boss. He alone signed the record deal; the band members are employees. Jon looks at his role as that of the CEO; his name is on the product and he alone makes the decisions.
For his first record deal in 1983, he was a solo act. The deal came from his song “Runaway,” which meant he needed to put a band together. Even he expected the arrangement to last only a few weeks; they were all pleasantly surprised to see it last much longer.
A shrewd businessman, he reinvented ticket sales. Rather than allowing scalpers to profit, he raised the prices of the first few rows and gave fans more for their money by creating VIP concert packages. These extra perks include things such as backstage passes, exclusive swag, and express lane access.
In some cases, fans have even taken home the seats they sat in.
An Accomplished Actor
Somehow, Jon Bon Jovi found time for a second career.
In 1990 he made his film debut in an uncredited role in the movie “Young Guns II,” for which he also wrote the soundtrack. In 2002, he had a recurring role as Victor Morrison on the TV show “Ally McBeal.”
He has also made appearances in “Sex and The City,” “The West Wing,” and “30 Rock.” On the big screen, he played parts both big and small, including in “Moonlight and Valentino, “The Leading Man,” “Little City,” “Homegrown,” “No Looking Back,” “Row Your Boat,” “Pay It Forward,” “U-571,” “Vampires: Los Muertos,” “Pucked,” and “New Year’s Eve.”
Not Afraid to Take Chances
Bon Jovi wanted to try his hand at country music. In 2007, he recorded the album “Lost Highway.” The hit single, "Who Said You Can't Go Home" with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, won both a CMT and Grammy award.
While it wasn’t a runaway hit among country fans, the album sold better than expected. Rolling Stone said his music has influenced a generation of country artists.
He’s a Frank Sinatra Fan
Though it’s been rumored that he is a blood relative to Frank Sinatra, Bon Jovi denied this; he is simply a huge fan.
He admitted to “Extra” that until recently, a photo of Ol’ Blue Eyes accompanied him on tour, and he cites Sinatra’s success as an actor (appearing in 60 movies) and his work ethic (he toured to age 80) as life goals.
Working Alongside Habitat for Humanity
Not content with making occasional appearances at charity galas, he takes his philanthropic pursuits seriously. Asserting his belief that with celebrity comes responsibility, since 2005 Jon Bon Jovi has partnered with Habitat for Humanity.
He has not only donated money, he and members of his football team (see below) have personally worked alongside future homeowners. To date he has helped the organization build more than 26 homes.
Seeing an opportunity, he also helped to secure sponsorships with major corporations. As the first Habitat for Humanity Ambassador in 2006, he worked to increase awareness of the worldwide housing crisis and further highlighted the organization’s important work by filming the video for “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” on a Habitat build site.
The JBJ Soul Foundation
In 2006, he and his wife Dorothea established the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, which provides assistance to those suffering from poverty and/or homelessness. Jon is quick to point out that “a hand up is not a hand out.” As with Habitat for Humanity, most of the foundation’s projects include some level of participation by the recipient.
The foundation’s main focus is basic needs: food and shelter. However, the JBJ Soul Foundation goes beyond providing the basics; it helps to fight the root causes of poverty through partnerships with local organizations. Various projects centralize resources to combat the cyclical causes of hunger. They offer job training and after-school programs as well as health care and tax preparation assistance.
Raising awareness is often the first step. The statewide NJ Soul of Hunger project gave a face to the problem. The project recruited and trained NJSOH photographers/advocates. Each was given a camera and a mission – to document what hunger looked like on a daily basis. Participants’ images were featured in exhibits and participants themselves spoke at event and testified at a state budget hearing.
JBJ Soul Kitchens
Two Soul Kitchens are perhaps the most visible component of the JBJ Soul Foundation. As Jon told Variety, “Hunger is 365 days a year.” Open to the public, the restaurants’ website proclaims: “All are welcome at our table where locally-sourced ingredients, dignity and respect are always on the menu.”
The foundation opened its first Soul Kitchen in 2011; two locations (one in Red Bank, New Jersey, and the other in Toms River) have served close to 100,000 meals. Far from soup kitchens, they serve three-course gourmet meals prepared by guest chefs with many of the ingredients coming from the restaurant garden or the JBJ Soul Kitchen Farm.
About half of the meals served are paid for; others are “earned” by volunteering time (one hour earns a meal for the volunteer and up to four family members). Paying customers are encouraged to donate $20 which covers the cost of their meal and helps defray the cost of those who cannot pay. Seating is first- come-first-served, with in-need diners getting priority. The restaurants also sell branded merchandise and hold occasional fundraisers such as their recent Empty Bowls Pottery Sale which offered handmade bowls with proceeds shared with a local non-profit.
While you won’t find Jon at the stove, he is sometimes found washing dishes. His wife and their four children have all helped out at the kitchen as well.
Not Afraid to Get Political
Another persistent rumor about Jon Bon Jovi is that he has political aspirations. While it’s true that he campaigned for recent Democratic candidates and served from 2010 to 2012 on the White House Council for Community Solutions, he has no political ambition himself.
He told the Herald Sun, “I take a bad review hard, let alone that 50 percent of the people hate you in politics before you've left your house.” Though he isn’t afraid to express his political views, he keeps them separate from personal relationships. He told Mother Jones when Chris Christie asked for permission to use his songs to launch his presidential bid, it was granted.
The Heart of the Philadelphia Soul
A big football fan, Jon Bon Jovi bought into the Arena Football League in 2004 and was a hands-on owner, handling much of the marketing and events until the league suspended operations in 2009 (he declined ownership when the Soul returned in 2011).
He was the one to come up with the name, the Philadelphia Soul, which he chose to stand the test of time. Like any good boss, he listened to his employees. Putting people above principle, when some of the players overslept and missed their plane, he offered them a flight home. Their ensuing conversation served as a catalyst to bring lasting changes to the organization that improved the professional image of the team and boosted player morale.
Marketing “Hampton Water”
While it has been called a joint venture with his son Jesse Bongiovi, Jon acts mostly as adviser. He is involved in the business, but tells CNBC Make It that he works for his son.
The name came from a conversation between the two men. Jon referred to rosé as “pink juice” and Jesse corrected him, calling it “Hampton Water.” Two years in the making, the wine is a result of a collaboration with French winemaker Gérard Bertrand. Diving into Hampton Water is a blend of grenache, cinsault, and mourvèdre grapes. The light-colored wine is said to have “notes of strawberry and melon” and has been given top marks by Wine Spectator.
Clothing Made With Swagger
Most bands are in the clothing business. Branded merchandise is expected at concerts and through websites. But Jon Bon Jovi takes clothing choices seriously.
In 2016, he launched Hart N Dagger, a clothing line of “everyday pieces that are classic, timeless and comfortable.” With a focus on denim (both jeans and shirts), the line is made in America and also includes tees, sweaters, and fashion accessories.
Jon has been photographed wearing his line both in People and on tour. Though he has worn torn jeans in the past, he told Athleisure Magazine that those days are behind him. Now he believes that “torn jeans better have been torn on the playing field or because they’ve been worn out – not torn by some fashionista.”
The Sauce He Grew Up On
Bon Jovi is also tangentially involved in another family business, the Bongiovi Brand of sauces, cofounded by his dad and brothers Matt and Anthony. Bongiovi’s more than 100-year-old family recipe was handed down from Jon’s Sicilian great grandma. The Bongiovi brothers grew up eating their father’s version.
In the early days of the band, John Sr. was known to make his famous sauce and bring dinner to the studio. The sauces have been featured at the JBJ Soul Kitchen, where they featured as part of a charity event and a portion of the proceeds benefit the JBJ Soul Foundation.
The Value of Paying it Forward
Bon Jovi realizes he didn’t get to the top alone. At his 2018 Hall of Fame induction, he shared his story: A young kid, he walked into the new radio station WAPP and handed his demo cassette to the DJ John Lassman. Lassman saw the potential and offered to include it on a home-grown record, launching a career.
He realizes that talent isn’t enough to succeed, especially in his business. In the band’s earliest days, they performed as opening act to the likes of ZZ Top and Eddie Money. It’s tough for new talent to be discovered. The band has been paying it forward, holding a contest for local bands on their tour to open its shows.