Shep Gordon
Photo: Jesse Dittmar

Shep Gordon

He has managed clients ranging from Groucho Marx to Alice Cooper and helped to turn chefs like Wolfgang Puck into superstars.

For more than six decades, Shep Gordon has been one of America’s most successful talent managers. His clients have included such music stars as Alice Cooper, the Pointer Sisters, Ben Vereen, Blondie, Frankie Valli, Kenny Loggins, Teddy Pendergrass, and Luther Vandross, as well as Raquel Welch and Groucho Marx. He has also been a film producer and, according to Emeril Lagasse, “single-handedly” made celebrities of dozens of chefs, including Lagasse himself as well as Roger Vergé, Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, Nobu Matsuhisa, and Dean Fearing. 

In 2013, Mike Meyers directed and produced a documentary, SupermenschThe Legend of Shep Gordon. Three years later, Gordon published a New York Times bestseller, They Call Me SupermenschA Backstage Pass to the Amazing Worlds of Film, Food, and Rock 'n' Roll.

He is a master at publicity whose outrageous stunts have included dressing Alice Cooper in see-through clothes and calling the police to arrest the band. Knowing crooner Teddy Pendergrass attracted a huge number of women at his concerts, Gordon devised a plan for the singer to conduct what proved to be a highly successful “For Women Only” tour.

In 2020, at age 74, Gordon married his third wife, Katie McMillan. They have a two-year-old son, Benjamin, who is named after Gordon’s father. They live in a sea-facing home in Maui, Hawaii, an island Gordon fell in love with the first time he saw it in 1974. He says that flying privately helps him get back and forth between there and the continental U.S. and that it also helped him achieve success with Alice Cooper.

When you were earning a B.A. in sociology [from the State University of New York at Buffalo] and doing postgraduate work at the New School, what were you planning to do with your life?

I thought I could be that guy on a white horse charging into something and helping people. 

And were you?

A California probation department came recruiting at the New School, looking for probation officers. I thought that was my white-horse moment. As a probation officer, I'd be helping kids.

What happened?

I went out to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in California. It was mostly Latino kids and my first real experience in a tattooed world. I had hair down to my hips and the other guards hated it. I lasted four hours there and then drove to L.A.

I read that you went to the Landmark Motor Hotel.

It was cheap. The first night, I was sitting on the balcony, high on psychedelics. I heard a girl screaming and raced downstairs. I separated these two people and the girl punched me. It turned out she was making love. In the morning, the girl called me over. It was Janis Joplin. She was sitting with Jimi Hendrix. She said, “This is the guy who tried to separate me [from my lover] last night.” It was the luckiest day of my life, other than getting born in America.

You were selling drugs then, right?

When I left the probation department, I had about 100 LSD hits, no real money, so I asked Jimi Hendrix if he knew anyone who wanted to buy any. All his music friends did. They paid about $5 a tab and it turned into an enterprise. 

How did you go from selling drugs to becoming a manager?

I was making some money and bought a 1954 Cadillac, figuring I could take all my clients [the drug buyers] around and it would help my drug business. Then Lester and Willie Chambers [of the Chambers Brothers band] said, “What are you going to tell the man if he asks you where you got the money for the car? You need something you can tell people you do legitimately, and then you can spend your money from your drug dealing.” I said, “What should I do?” One of them said, “You're Jewish? You should be a manager.” Because in those days, all of show business was Jewish. 

So, you were introduced to the unknown Alice Cooper band and became their manager, but you didn't have to do anything? 

At first, it was a cover for my drug business. In my world, everybody started getting arrested, so I talked to Alice and said, ‘Let's try and do this seriously.’ It really wasn't to get rich; it was truly to buy lunch. 

I understand you've often done business just on a handshake. Is that true?

It's very rare that I'll do anything on a handshake other than agree to be the manager. If I make an investment, I get a contract. If I make a book or record deal, the artist gets a contract. But I signed Alice and I’ve never had a contract with him for 54 years.

With the Alice Cooper band, you made a pact early on that you'd stay together until you were both millionaires. Did you really believe that was possible?

Absolutely. 

In the beginning, you fleeced motels with bad checks and you beat the cops. Later, you made good on every bad check. Did the values that led you to pay back the money come from your father?

I'm sure they did. I didn't realize it at the time, but that's exactly what my dad would've done. He just wouldn't have told anybody. I have a little ego in me that he didn't have. I like getting credit for stuff; he never cared.

You're a master of publicity. Did you make it up as you went along? 

I would visualize what I wanted people to read about Alice Cooper and then I would manufacture that event. That's what I've done my whole career. Teddy Pendergrass for women only was strictly a visualization. Alice hated parents, so I did everything to get a parent to hate him: bite a chicken, wear a snake, chop up a baby doll. 

You adopted four children. What made you do that?

I’d lived for a few years with their grandmother, and her daughter moved in with us. Eventually, she died and I went to the funeral and there were these four little kids. I didn't know she had kids. I went out to the car, smoked a big joint, and thought, “You've always wanted a family. This is instant family.”

In 2012, you had an intestinal infarction and were given a 20 percent chance of survival. Do you ever think about that now?

I realized how lucky I was. I flatlined a couple of times.

In the early 70s, you flew on the Starship jet plane?

I think we were the second band to use it after Led Zeppelin. It was fantastic. It had a bedroom. 

What do you recall about touring with Alice?

Every day was a goof, and it was hysterical. We had a great promoter. In every city, he would have a red carpet waiting. He'd have a mariachi band and the high school marching band and cheerleaders. We paid for the plane because we knew he could get publicity. 

How?

In those days, there was only network news and newspapers. Artists would invite the network news to their sound check. On the six o'clock news, you'd sell the last tickets. But Alice didn't do sound checks, so we had to manufacture something to get the news to cover us. That airplane did it. For us, the plane was a great investment. It was way ahead of the curve. Nobody was on private planes then.

Do you fly privately now?

When I can hitchhike my way on or when it’s affordable. There's a private subscription airline called Roam. It's a 737, configured with 32 seats. [American chef] Charlie Palmer does the food for the plane. It's made flying back and forth to Maui really easy.

How much are you flying privately these days?

I've been on three round trips in the last two months.

Do you bring your family?

The family, the nanny, everybody.

And you have the plane to yourself? 

It’s subscription. It could be up to 30 people, but it’s usually seven to 10.

Have you ever considered buying your own plane or a jet share?

I considered a share, but at my level of resources, it’s cost prohibitive. 

If you could buy a private jet, what would you buy?

A GV or G650. I just came home on the G650. It was fantastic.

Why?

It had that little bedroom in the back. It was configured beautifully. It had the big screen, a couple of couches. But they're all great. Flying private is the greatest luxury.

You purport to be retired, but you're not.

I know. I have a new definition of retired: you do the same thing, you just don't get paid.

You've said the three most important things for a manager are one, get the money; two, remember to get the money; three, never forget to always remember to get the money. 

That line was stolen from Jerry Wexler, the co-chair of Atlantic Records.

Did you always succeed in getting the money?

I was managing Blondie at the height of their career. They were booked into the Superdome in New Orleans, but the Superdome didn't want to pay. I held the band for 45 minutes, and finally got a certified check, but I made a bad mistake. I didn't move the money. I came backstage and said, "OK, you guys can go on." They went on stage and two policemen came over, put handcuffs on me, took me to a little room and kept me there for 14 hours until I agreed to sign a piece of paper giving them back the money. They wouldn't let me call a lawyer. I tried to go after them, but they all denied it happened.

You have said that what's really important to you is to do compassionate business. What did you mean?

Two winners instead of a winner and a loser. I construct things so that everybody wins.

Tell us about your meeting with chef Roger Vergé. 

Vergé was successful and powerful and happy; in my world, I saw a lot of success and power, but not a lot of happy. It seemed like it was effortless to Vergé. I wanted to see how he did it, and he was gracious enough to let me into his life. He said, “You know how to cook?” I said, “No. How do I learn?” And he gave me the name of a cooking school. I would do whatever he said just to get close to him. I didn't want to really cook, but I came back the next year having attended two cooking schools. We developed an amazing friendship. He became my mentor, my father, my best friend. And what I took away from him was service. That's what really made him happy.

Later, you helped 35 of the world's top chefs supercharge their careers. How did you do this?

It was obvious to me that demand is the toughest thing. You could get into any concert or Broadway show and sit in the first row if you had enough money, but you couldn't get into Spago or Charlie Trotter’s no matter how much money you had. That's real demand. These chefs were wandering minstrels. They had one restaurant and you either came there or you didn't get to meet them. They asked me to do for them what I’d done for Alice Cooper. I started ACR [Alive Culinary Resources] and started managing chefs pro bono because I loved them and couldn’t stand to see them get shafted. 

You served on the board of the Tibet Fund with the Dalai Lama for 15 years. And you cooked for him. What was it like being around him?

Amazing. There were a million differences on the surface between him and Vergé, but internally and intention-wise, they were exactly the same.

You produce an annual New Year’s benefit dinner in Maui, and you've provided over four million meals for people in need since 2008. What made you start doing that?

Need. We're really lucky here. We have a great community of artists. We used to do New Year's parties and they had no reason to exist. Roger Vergé showed me how to live a happy and fulfilled life in service to others. I saw it again when I met the Dalai Lama. Something that makes me happy is doing something nice for someone. Something you didn’t have to do, maybe for someone you don’t know. So we all got together and said, "Let's give this party a reason to be." 

What's the hardest thing you ever had to do?

One that really hurt was I had to fire guitar player Frankie Infante from Blondie for no real reason. He's a good kid. I knew I was changing his life for the worse. Really, I was a messenger. And all I could say was, "I have no idea why you're being fired, but my job is to tell you." 

What are you most proud of?

Probably the recognition I get as a good human. I enjoy hearing it. It’s good for my ego. I get a lot of responses to the documentary and book from people telling me how much their life has been changed. All kinds of people from all over the world seem to be touched in some positive way by the movie. Everywhere I go, strangers stop me on the street to thank me for it. One of the things people seem to respond most strongly to is the perception that I’ve managed to become successful in the cutthroat worlds of the music and movie businesses while staying a nice guy, and apparently a happy one. That really makes me feel good. 

What do you want your legacy to be?

That you can win without hurting people.



This interview has been condensed and edited.

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