Mensch: noun, origin Yiddish – a person, esp. a man, regarded as being honorable, decent, and responsible and having strength of character.
[My father] was very gentle, always kind to everyone, compassionate, put other people before him. I think a “mensch” walks into a room and has an awareness of where there’s need, and plays into that. If someone is sick, you bring them chicken soup.”
– Shep Gordon
What do Alice Cooper, Groucho Marx, Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stalone, Mike Meyer, Emeril Lagasse, Luther Vandross, Kenny Loggins, Rick James, Teddy Pendergrass, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Anne Murray, Raquel Welch, Midnight Star, Ben Vereen, Stephanie Mills, Blondie, George Clinton and the Gypsy Kings all have in common?
They were all managed or promoted by Shep Gordon, a legendary agent, impresario, filmmaker and provocateur who has made a career out of making people famous, but has remained relatively unknown outside of the Hollywood entertainment world.
After pleading with Gordon for more than 20 years, Mike Meyers has finally made a fascinating and revealing documentary film about his remarkable friend called, “Supermensch: the Legend of Shep Gordon.” Meyers’ directorial debut tells the beautiful, improbable, wild and at times excruciatingly funny story of how Shep Gordon found himself – quite by accident – at the epicenter of American music and pop culture history. With a dynamic, indelible cast of characters who became a part of his personal and professional life, Gordon developed a Midas touch for making talented artists successful, wealthy and famous.
Shep Gordon started out as an idealistic, starry-eyed liberal with a degree in sociology who wanted to save the world. Initially he tried to be a probation officer, but after being pushed out of his first job Gordon drove to Los Angeles and ended up staying at the Hollywood Landmark Hotel, where Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and some other up-and-coming musicians were staying. Gordon had a big bag of weed and some LSD and became a dealer to these budding artists; but Hendrix thought he needed a legitimate business front and suggested that because Gordon was Jewish, he should become a manager, starting with Alice Cooper.
Gordon managed to turn Alice Cooper into an international rock star, by recording songs like “I’m 18” and “School’s Out” and engineering publicity stunts like throwing a live chicken onstage, have a truck break down at Piccadilly Circus with a billboard of Cooper naked and getting him booked between John Lennon and the Doors at a major pop festival. One of Gordon’s first publicity gimmicks was to put female panties over the top of Alice Cooper’s “Schools Out” LP; then he called Customs to complain that someone was selling illegal panties on a record. If ever there was a trickster – an archetypal fast-talking, brilliant show business huckster – it was Shep Gordon.
Anne Murray with John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper and Mickey Dolenz at the Anne’s headline show at the Troubador in Los Angeles, in 1973.
Gordon turned Anne Murray – an unknown, soft-spoken, blonde country singer with a wholesome, girl-next-door disposition – into a huge pop star overnight by calling in some favors and having her picture taken with John Lennon, Keith Moon, Alice Cooper, Mickey Dolenz, Harry Nilsson and Bernie Taupin. The “guilt by association” strategy worked, and the paparazzi photo propelled Murray into the spotlight and she was booked on “The Midnight Special,” a top rock music TV show in the early 70s.
With his talent for publicity, marketing and innovation, Gordon often managed to have a transformative effect on his artists and their work. Gordon developed a strong relationship with R&B crooner Teddy Pendergrass, but when he first took him as a client, he was shocked at how black singers and musicians were ruthlessly exploited by the so-called “chitlin circuit.” Black promoters owned the radio stations, booked the acts, played the records and the record label sent them on the tours, but the artists were never paid. The artists believed that if they didn’t do the shows, local stations wouldn’t give them enough radio air time and they would lose their record deals.
Gordon’s strategy was to book Pendergrass in white venues, and he also came up with the concept of doing concerts for women only. Under Gordon’s tutelage Pendergrass racked up 5 platinum albums in a row, with Gordon marketing him as “The Black Elvis.”
But later, Gordon faced an unfortunate conflict with Pendergrass that didn’t end well. Pendergrass was slated for a performance at a major arena in London, but he refused to go on stage. Gordon was livid and confronted Pendergrass about his self-centerdness, warning him that his patrons were working people who were spent their hard-earned money to see him onstage, and his karma would hit him with a vengeance. Still, Pendergrass chose not to perform.
A few weeks later, Pendergrass nearly died in a ghastly car accident that left him a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down. Gordon was asked by the hospital doctors to tell Pendergrass that he would never be able to walk again. Gordon was horrified by the event, but worked hard to keep Pendergrass’ life on track by exploiting an obscure loophole in his record contract allowing for income from a film soundtrack. Gordon also engineered Pendergrass’ comeback by securing a spot for him onstage with Ashford and Simpson at the 1985 Liveaid concert in Philadelphia. Pendergrass joined with the duo with an emotional and triumphant performance of their classic “Reach Out and Touch” in front of 100,000 people at JFK Stadium and a television audience estimated at over 1 billion viewers.
Beyond music, Gordon also became a pioneer in the independent film industry, working with filmmaker Carolyn Pfeiffer through their Alive Films company and creating such memorable productions “Koyaanisqatsi,” “El Norte” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Pfeiffer glowingly refers to Gordon as making her the only woman with the power and latitude to green-light a Hollywood film at the time, through their Alive studio.
Gordon had a natural love for cooking and Chef Emeril Lagasse credits Gordon for creating the concept behind the television show, “Celebrity Chef.” After traveling on a world tour with his personal mentor, French Chef Roger Verge, Gordon was appalled at how little Verge and other chefs were paid for their work. He was confident he could find ways to “monetize” the profile of chefs like Verge, Legasse and Wolfgang Puck by making them into celebrities through television. But Gordon really felt he was just repaying a favor for a longtime friend. He was captivated by Verge as someone who was both successful and famous, yet also was happy and content with his life; through his mentor he learned that happiness and success were not mutually exclusive.
Gordon has seen the worst excesses and dangers of fame. He lived through the deaths of his friends Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and John Lennon and eventually watched Alice Cooper go into rehab for alcohol. Gordon has strong reservations about the current trend of “reality TV” shows and the obsession with fame as a goal, in contrast to fame coming as a byproduct of being “great at your craft.”
“I spent my whole life making people famous, but there is nothing I’ve ever seen about fame that is healthy. It’s something that is very hard to survive and has no intrinsic value unto itself,” Gordon explains. “I love what I did – I wouldn’t change anything that I did in my life, but I probably would’ve managed less artists at a time and found more time for a life.”
“Supermensch” would have benefitted from exploring more of the dark shadows of fame and going into detail about some of the difficult, troubling and painful experiences that Meyer probably glossed over in his desire to paint a positive picture of his friend. After all, documentaries are supposed to be balanced, realistic portrayals; the story would have been even more compelling by letting the audience know where some of the bodies are buried. In a subsequent interview, Gordon claimed that the plane crash scene in “Almost Famous” was based on an actual plane flight when Cameron Crowe was traveling on tour with Alice Cooper. Gordon laughed as he recalled that in their confusion and fearing death, Cooper’s band members began rambling off their last confessions, and one band member told another that he had slept with his pregnant wife, and the child was his. One imagines there are bits and pieces of these stories that could have fleshed out the broader narrative.
Gordon’s full-bellied laughter belies something about a life well-lived, an appreciation for a little craziness and knowing how to have a good-hearted, good time. Gordon seems to be a lot like Richard Branson in this sense; not only in terms of having great entrepreneurial instincts about the rock music industry in its budding, early stages, but also in his character and temperament.
Gordon built his career and lifestyle on a helping others and maintaining strong ethics in his business dealings. He likes doing favors for others and building foundation of goodwill by supporting them in return.
“What’s really important for me is to do compassionate business. Something I call couponing – paying someone back for doing something’ for you they didn’t have to do,” Gordon says. “There are no winners and losers, only winners.”
In 1974 Gordon bought a house by the ocean in Maui, because he knew immediately it was where he wanted to live the rest of his life. From time to time many A-list celebrities and Hollywood movers and shakers come to visit him, but his favorite guest appears to be the Dalai Lama. Gordon takes special pride in cooking for the Dalai Lama, and describes being in the His Holiness’ presence as a spiritual “cleansing.” One of his prize possessions is a handwritten note – a prayer – left for him in his home by the Dalai Lama, during one of his visits.
May the poor find wealth
May those weak with sorrow find joy
May the forlorn find new hope, constant happiness and prosperity
May the frightened cease to be afraid, and those bound be free
May the weak find power, and may their hearts join in friendship
– His Holiness, the Dalai Lama
Ironically, Gordon sees fame as something that has been “fantastic” for the Dalai Lama, because it has brought a light to the plight of his people. Gordon himself serves on the board of the Tibet Fund. Through all his experience with the artists, actors and the entertainment industry, he believes there is a potentially compassionate, Buddhist approach to fame.
“The beautiful thing about Buddhism is that it’s all perfect – there is no judgment at all – never to be judgmental, just to be compassionate,” Gordon points out. “You explain to someone what the price is for it (fame), and you can help them achieve what they want, even though they know there’s a heavy price to pay, that’s in the realm of what a good Buddhist would do.”