‘Supermensch’ Shep Gordon looks back on a wild ride of sex, drugs and rock and roll

LOS ANGELES – You might not know who Shep Gordon is, but you've certainly felt his impact. As a manager extraordinaire who has shepherded the careers of everyone from Alice Cooper and Teddy Pendergrass to Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck, Gordon has had a wild ride. He was there for the early rock explosion, not just rubbing shoulders with people like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, but working with them, figuring out the business of show with a whole crop of exciting artists as a defining fixture of that bedrock. Naturally, then, someone was going to be interested in trying to capture that presence in a film.

But Gordon's is a life that extends beyond entertainment, which of course makes it all the more fascinating. He maintains a friendship with the Dalai Lama, for instance (though he would say he's merely of service to His Holiness). He's also an expert storyteller, taking delight in cooking for others, basically leading a life of service. He's a truly compelling figure, and after staying with Gordon at his Maui home during a rough patch in his own career, Mike Myers saw the virtue in framing it within a documentary. Hence, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.”

As soon as I heard coffee or tea or any fleeting moment with a guy like Gordon was on the table, I jumped at the opportunity. We met at the Sunset Marquis, one of Los Angeles' famed rock havens tucked away in West Hollywood on the eve of the Classic Rock Awards. We talked about his wild ride in the business, how weird it is to have so much attention focused on him after a career in the shadows working for others and how being a manager has been creatively fulfilling throughout. Check out the back and forth below.


HitFix: Did you ever think you would have a movie made about you?

Shep Gordon: No, not at all. Never wanted it, never thought about it. And even after I said yes, I never thought it would get to a lot of eyeballs. For me it was more because Mike wanted to do it so bad. Let him get it out of his system and my cousin in San Diego will see it and life goes on. So I never expected it to have this kind of an impact.

It's a fascinating portrait. And it's really an education, too, about a period of time in the industry that's fun to learn about.

Yeah, I'm surprised more people don't talk about that. Because that was sort of the golden era of rock and roll, and you never get to see the inside.

Is it as interesting to you still, having lived it and been around the block?

One of the things I heard someone say years ago that really rang true was, “If you remember the '60s and '70s, you weren't there.”

So it's nice to have the refresher. [Laughs]

Yeah, so I sit there and I think, “Holy shit. What a lucky guy I am.” Because they were amazing times with amazing people and it was so raw that I could actually enter that world. I had no skills, no training. Nobody asked. Everybody just accepted – it was really the age of the hippie, where everybody thought you could do whatever you wanted to do, and we sort of did.

It makes someone of my generation envious, I think, wishing we had come up in that era.

It was a different time. There's good and bad about all times. But that, I think, was a magic time – maybe selfishly, because I was a part of it. I've been asked so many questions about all that stuff, and it's got me thinking that one of the things that existed then that doesn't exist now was in all the darker areas – dark's not even the right word – all the extreme areas. Sex. There were no consequences to sex. There was no AIDS. You could sleep with seven or eight women and you didn't have to think about dying. That wasn't part of the formula. Drugs. Nobody had died. Jimi and everybody, they were the first wave of people to die from drugs. So we didn't realize there were consequences to drugs. It was this world of no boundaries, no borders, so different than today. We all know what the consequences are today.

I'm glad you wanted to do this here at the Sunset Marquis. I've never been here.

This is one of the rock and roll meccas. There's a studio here that a lot of people have recorded at. Steven Tyler just moved out. Aerosmith's last album [was just recorded here]. It's a really nice little safe haven. You can work 24/7, you live here, you eat here, there's always a groupie or two floating through. When you get done, walk around. There's great rock memorabilia.

When you drive around town, do you…

Get flashbacks?

…yeah, get a lot of ghosts? I mean the town is so volatile, so it's always changing, but I imagine for someone like you there would be a lot of that.

Oh my God. Especially here. I used to come here, my first time was with Blondie. We sort of lived here. Whenever I come back in here I get all the ghosts of those days. I had a nightclub on Sunset called Carlos and Charlie's, so particularly when I drive past there I get a headache, from the liquor!

You obviously had a career putting out films but did you ever want to direct anything yourself?

No. Making movies, it's all about repetition. And that bores me. I produced and distributed probably 35 movies and I never went to the set. I really feel like I was creative in the way that I managed. And that was my art.

I love the bit in the movie about “Wayne's World,” how you sort of muscled Mike Myers into using “Feed my Frankenstein” in the middle of the film rather than “School's Out.” I love that song!

That's a great song, right?

Yeah, and I probably wouldn't have heard it if you hadn't put your foot down. [Laughs.]

I felt very creative as a manager. I wasn't the guy who got you Coca-Colas or booked your airplanes.

What is it? You would meet someone and just have a gift of knowing how they should position themselves?

Well, my thing was very different. Alice [Cooper] I started with. That was a very different story, but I became very successful with Alice and I got a reputation as an honest guy who was a little crazy but really good as a manager. So I would get funneled in, either through the record company or the booking agency or the artists themselves, [by people who], after they got to the top of their game, wanted to stay at the top of their game. So after Alice, you know, when I signed Anne Murray, “Snowbird” was number one. When I signed Teddy [Pendergrass], his song was top 10. So I would pick the cherries. It didn't matter what they did. I knew how to put a picture frame on it. I used to say that my reputation in the business was, other managers could make you more money, but if you wanted to be sure nobody would ask who your last name is? I was the guy to get. So Luther [Vandross], nobody said Luther who, Teddy who, Alice who, Raquel who, Groucho who. They didn't need your last name; I'd make you famous.

What is that? Build an iconography around somebody or something?

Yeah, each one is different. That's where the art came in. Teddy, when I hit on “For Women Only” shows, that sort of defined for the audience, for him, for the record company, for everybody what the core attraction was. With Alice, that chicken on stage really defined it. So that's what I would look for. With Gipsy Kings, how do you promote an act that you know will never get airplay, doesn't speak English, nobody can understand, but women love? Women loved them. Every model in the world had been to Saint-Tropez where they played on the beach. They had their guitar cases out and people threw money in, but that's where everyone went to pick up women. Because they had the most beautiful women. How do you monetize that in America where no one has ever heard of them? So it was a challenge. But I had a friend of mine at Paul Mitchell and I went to a guy at Elektra and I said, “I can really break this out, but you've got to trust me.” So what I did was, through Paul Mitchell, every beauty shop in America got a cassette and T-shirts, 10 dozen coffee cups to give out and in the top 20 markets, free tickets to the Gipsy Kings concerts. So we didn't charge for the first tour. Elektra paid for it and through the beauty shops we went out and got every beautiful girl in America, and then every guy came, because all the beautiful girls were there! [Laughs.]

You could probably do a whole other movie with stories like that.

Yeah, but that's creative management. With Luther, the top stations in the country that played his music, we allowed them to run a contest for Luther to sing at your wedding live on the radio. And they get married at the studio. That's who he was. It was all about romance. With Teddy it was all about sex, “for women only.”

That's fascinating. Does it always boil down to elemental ideas like that?

Oh yeah. Connection. What connects them to an audience? What is that thing?

That's harder to suss out in the film business, I guess. It's not as intimate an art form in terms of the performer with the audience.

I'm not sure. Like I'm so involved with the culinary arts and I was waiting for somebody's lightbulb to go on to use that as part of a story. And now you see it happening a lot. “Chef,” “Hundred-Foot Journey,” it's just a backdrop; it has nothing to do with the real story. So I do think in films, if you look at the films that are big, they usually touch some issues that are very simple. But they use casings of what people are interested in in the moment as a vehicle to tell the story.

Speaking of “Chef,” Roy Choi was a client, right?

I wouldn't call him a client but I've been helping him.

I just saw the film recently. It's good.

It's so good.

I like it because the artistic struggle parable is so naked. You get where Favreau is coming from in terms of the entertainment business, but then you see it perfectly applicable in that world.

Did you see “Hundred-Foot Journey?”

Yeah. I was starving afterwards!

I loved that one, too. As a real fan of the culinary arts, that nailed it.

The whole omelette bit?

They nailed it.

At this point, none other than Gregg Allman walks into the restaurant, right past our table. Even a guy like Shep Gordon is impressed.

Gregg Allman.

Yeah, wow. They just played their last show.

In New York, yeah.

Have you ever worked with him before?

No but I knew his manager very well. They're great guys.

So how often do you come out here? Do you mainly just kick back in Maui?

Only if I need to be here.

I was amazed about that nugget concerning what you paid for the house out there versus what it would run now.

I was so uncomfortable with that.

Really? Too private? You don't like to talk about that kind of stuff?

Yeah, it's not me. But Mike wanted it in. It's his movie, so I said it. It felt a little arrogant, boasting about it.

Well for what it's worth, I don't think you came across that way at all.

Yeah, thank you. For me I cringe a little every time I see it.

What was your first reaction when you saw the film?

I turned to Mike and I said, “You've got to introduce me to this guy!” But my knee-jerk reaction was just being so humbled that he would write this sort of love letter to me. A bit of pain. For me there are things that are tough to watch. Talking about my mother is tough to watch. All the drug things I talk about is a little tough for me to hear, especially without a qualifier on it, which I try to do at the Q&As. It all looks nice but all my friends died from it. There were consequences, which, again, we didn't realize then. But for the most part I like it. I like the guy he put up there. What's hard is the last five months, having to talk about myself. That I find tough to do. I try to be honest and not just give a surface, stupid answer. But I don't spend a lot of time on myself. I'm not a dresser.

And you never wrote a book, right? Because obviously you could.

No. Anthony Bourdain just bought the rights, though. You know, none of that stuff has ever mattered to me. So to spend days talking about myself, it's so weird. I know it's important, but it's so egotistical to me.

Well you're almost a little out of place in this business, to not be egotistical, you know?

[Laughs.] Yeah.

So it's almost worth it to ask how you've made it through this business without that quality.

Yeah, I just do what I do. I know a lot of people like me, though. The business has a bad rap. It's more the human condition than an entertainment condition. Humans are not as great a species as we might like it to be, so ego, greed…all of that.