Greg Federico is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Music Education at William Paterson University. He previously received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from Villanova University in 1991. Greg currently works as a sole proprietor, teaching private lessons on drums, percussion, and piano. He is also a freelance musician and has independently released four full-length jazz CDs of mainly original music. Greg has taught music for 28 years and has been a performer for 26 years.
The Remarkable Legend of Shep Gordon: A Brief Review of His Memoir “They Call Me Supermensch”
By Greg Federico
I didn’t know what to expect upon opening up Shep Gordon’s memoir, “They Call Me Supermensch: A Backstage Pass To The Amazing Worlds of Film, Food, and Rock ‘N’ Roll”, and settling in to read it. Before my experience with this book, I admittedly wasn’t even familiar with the name Shep Gordon – this is likely to some degree because I had never been a fan of the music of Alice Cooper, the artist who Gordon broke into the music business with as a manager and who he has represented for some fifty years…as it turns out, apparently Shep Gordon himself hasn’t been much of a fan of Alice’s music either, a bit to my surprise. But I most certainly am now a huge fan of Shep Gordon after reading this wonderfully engaging, highly entertaining, fascinating story of his life and remarkably legendary career in the film, food, and music industries.
It didn’t take long for Gordon to win me over as a fan. The text from paragraph 1 of page 7 through paragraph 7 of page 8 in the Introduction – within which Gordon looks for a common thread linking the successful events of his life, considers some guiding principles by which he’s lived and done business, and discusses the deeper meaning of his life that he was looking for overall – was the convincer for me that not only was I going to enjoy the many great stories ahead to be told, but I was also going to appreciate the man telling them. And I was right. As I read, I found myself on multiple occasions thinking, “I like this guy Shep”; and I found myself consistently rooting for his success in each scenario he describes as well. Perhaps the biggest explanation for this is because in every circumstance in which he was immersed it was plain to see that in spite of some of the outrages stunts he pulled, his core operating values were those of humility, gratitude, kindness, and honor – all of which I have the highest regard for in an individual.
I loved every minute of the time I spent absorbing Shep Gordon’s history – so much so, that not even hours after completing it I found myself opening it up and re-reading it all over again from page 1 of the Introduction. Gordon has an easy-to-read, conversational style to his storytelling that I find appealing. I was immediately engaged at the outset. It felt as though I was invited by him to sit down in an easy chair and listen to him share one fantastic story after another of his career managing artists ranging from Alice Cooper to Groucho Marx to Raquel Welch to Teddy Pendergrass to Luther Vandross (and on and on), to representing such world renowned chefs as Roger Vergé, Emeril Lagasse, and Wolfgang Puck. I couldn’t get enough of the myriad behind-the-scenes accounts of Gordon’s experiences in multiple areas of the entertainment industry, and as a result the book moved along quickly for me.
But to me this book is more than just about Shep Gordon recounting raucous stories of the music business, the often dog-eat-dog nature of the film industry, and the fascinating world of culinary arts. I do well to also note that every bit as compelling are the scenes he shares from his personal life. Perhaps one of the most respectable aspects of “Supermensch” is that Gordon willingly passes along a plentitude of lessons he’s learned, both in business and in life. And there is no pretense about any of it in his writing style. Absolutely none. As I previously referenced, I felt as if he was regaling his wonderful anecdotes, some rather incredible and others quite touching, along with passing along his wisdom and knowledge to me personally…such is the ease and genuine vibe of his writing style.
Gordon weaving his personal history throughout the book is a key component to understanding the man as well as the meaning behind the book’s title – for in writing this book, I gather that Shep Gordon wants to share with his readers the deeper meaning to his life that he had been searching for and eventually found along the way. I particularly resonate with this. In some respects, I found myself feeling a bit like “Grasshopper” (David Carradine’s character in the television seris “Kung Fu”) to Gordon, just as Gordon felt to Vergé – desirous to learn everything possible from the man. Many individuals (myself included) are looking for the answer the question, “What is the purpose of it all?” Gordon touches upon it in the Introduction and subsequently develops it again and again along the way: Ultimately it is about service toward others.
By the end of the book, and, proverbially speaking, at the end of the day, it’s quite clear to me why Shep Gordon is hailed as “Supermensch” by so many whose lives he has touched along the way throughout his incredible journey. “They Call Me Supermensch” is a true joy to read – an engaging memoir in which both business and life lessons abound throughout – and I wholeheartedly recommend it to all who are not only interested in the inner-workings of the entertainment industry in popular culture, but who are inspired by the spirit of kindness and giving of oneself to others in daily life.
There is great wisdom that Shep Gordon imparts to his readers regarding managing artists – the following quotes provide nuggets of miscellaneous insight into a small sampling of what’s involved in such a profession:
“…a mantra of show business: ‘Every rejection brings you closer to acceptance.’” (page 62, paragraph 3)
“…a very important lesson. Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, a brilliant man who became a dear friend, would later put it to me this way: “The three most important things a manger does are, number one, get the money. Number two, always remember to get the money. Number three, never forget to always remember to get the money.” (page 64, paragraph 3)
“So many times in my life, I wake up and things happen. The important thing is to be open to whatever comes and remember to say yes.” (page 129, paragraph 1)
“I never again made the mistake of not knowing in advance everything there was to know about a venue – especially anything that could upset or distract my artist.” (page 131, paragraph 4)
However, interestingly, a good portion of Gordon’s more substantive wisdom is built into the fabric of an honorable way of living life in more of an overarching sense. Here are five lessons I learned about managing an artist from Shep Gordon in reading his memoir, “They Call Me Supermensch”:
1. Compassionate Business
This principle is the most important of all of the lessons that Shep Gordon teaches his readers about how he conducts business. No matter the circumstance, his number one goal at all times is to create win-win situations for everyone involved. He feels that the end result of any kind of deal or scenario doesn’t have to reflect that only one party involved comes out a winner and all the rest are losers. His primary aim is always to create ideal results in which everyone wins. Gordon also feels that the barter system – what he effectively, and affectionately, calls the “coupon” – is a beautiful way to conduct business honorably which creates win-win results.
Hand in hand with his win-win approach is the fact that Gordon never wants to hurt anyone at any time. Even during those times when he was setting into motion some of his most outrageous tactics to get parents to loathe Alice Cooper, he never intended any form of harm to anyone – albeit almost always controversial, these ploys were all just a means of marketing Alice Cooper in a much more streamlined fashion than conventional means would have in an effort to create a win-win for Alice, all involved in business with Alice, and the fans of Alice.
In the Introduction, on page 8, paragraphs 3-5, Gordon writes:
“…there’s a big principle behind the way I have always tried to conduct business: Create win-win situations. I call it doing compassionate business. It doesn’t have to be winners and losers. It can be winners and winners.
Along with that goes my idea of the coupon. When somebody does me a favor, I feel I am obligated to return that favor. I say they have a coupon with me. They can redeem that coupon anytime, in any way, and I will honor it. That’s win-win too.
I have tried never to hurt people or draw blood. If I did, it was by accident, and I certainly didn’t gloat about it. I try to live by a mantra: Don’t get mad. Getting mad only hurts. Use that energy to accomplish your goal.”
Gordon develops the notion of compassionate business in paragraph 4 of page 164: “…seeding a little compassion and kindness every chance you get creates an abundance of happiness for all. It doesn’t have to be winner and losers. It can be win-win. You make other people happy, they make you happy. It’s very simple, and it’s probably the most important lesson of my life. It’s what I mean by compassionate business.”
2. Create history, don’t wait for it to happen.
Ideas are what make the world go round. Shep Gordon was willing to attempt nearly anything he could dream up to promote Alice Cooper (and, later, all of the other artists he would go on to manage), provided that “anything he could dream up” wouldn’t hurt anyone…and, in fact, he was quite the proverbial “outside the box” type of thinker – which is to say that Gordon was not willing to wait around for success to happen by conventional means…he was willing to create the road to success that he envisioned by employing ground breaking tactics, even if everyone told him that such schemes on the way to that success were absolutely crazy/ludicrous. Put another way, Gordon was not one to “play the cards he was dealt” – rather, HE HIMSELF was the dealer! He had ultimate belief in the notion that he could do anything he dreamt up…and once he had his mind set on a specific goal, he didn’t take “no” for an answer in any way, shape, or form as a deterrent to achieving that goal.
From having the Alice Cooper band wear outrageous pants and shirts of transparent plastic while completely naked underneath early on in the band’s history; to wrapping panties around the vinyl in the packaging of the 1972 Alice Cooper album, School’s Out; to spearheading a stunt to get Alice Cooper an enormous amount of publicity in England prior to the first performance of the band at Wembly Arena – Gordon took a huge billboard image (which he and a team of people created) of Alice naked with a large snake wrapped around him, placed it on the side of a truck, and had that truck fake a breakdown on Piccadilly Circus in the heart of London during the middle of rush hour…this, in turn, created a traffic jam so that everyone would see that controversial image, and the show at Wembly ended up subsequently selling out – these are but a small sampling of the ways in which Shep Gordon attempted to skirt convention and create history with Alice Cooper…and it was this type of “out of the box” thinking that allowed Gordon to enjoy enormous success with so many artists thereafter.
In the Introduction, on page 8, paragraph 6, Gordon unveils the notion of creating history when he writes “And then there’s this: Create history, don’t wait for it to happen. Visualize your goal, then create the road that will take you there.” He reiterates that this is his methodology in paragraph 5 of page 96 heading into page 97 with the statement “…my modus operandi: creating history instead of waiting for it to happen…”
In paragraph 1 on page 97 Gordon elaborates: “Once I had a path to my goal, I didn’t let anything or anyone deter me from following it. So when Warner Bros. didn’t want to use Album Graphics or pay for the panties, instead of just giving up I figured out how to make them do it – and I wasn’t above using a little nonviolent, gentle extortion on that exec to make it happen.”
As I mentioned in the opening portion of this section, Gordon was willing to attempt nearly anything he could dream up to promote an artist provided that it wouldn’t hurt anyone. He shines light on this condition of his philosophy in paragraph 2 on page 97: “That brings up another component that was very important to me: No one got hurt. I drew no blood. In fact, everyone came out a winner. It could have gone wrong, in a lot of ways. It could have all blown up on Alice or Warners or that exec or Tom Zito, but I put the extra work and time and money into it to make sure it all came out win-win. When you’re creating history instead of just reacting to it, you have that control. Visualize what you want the history books to say, then you can make it happen the way you want it to happen.” Notice the part of this that reads “When you’re creating history instead of just reacting to it, you have that control.” Once again, Gordon himself is the one dealing the cards!
Gordon continues developing his thoughts on creating history in paragraph 3 on page 97: “…it’s not like you just snap your fingers and things happen. It’s hours of work. It’s waking up earlier…not allowing distractions to deter you, and then working your ass off to reach the goal you set for yourself.”
He concludes his thoughts on his philosophy in paragraph 1 on page 98: “It all starts with the end, the goal. I always tell my clients the real value in me is that I can get a year ahead of you, see where there’s a pothole in our road, and figure out how you don’t fall into it. That’s what I do.”
3. Stars aren’t born, they’re made.
This lesson goes hand in hand with the philosophy of “creating history”. A star being “made” in effect involves creation of something from nothing…and in order to do this, expectations must constantly be at a supreme level – for high expectations often (almost always) have a heavy influence in producing positive results, particularly if there is a tireless, “never quit until the goal is achieved” work ethic involved. Shep Gordon both had higher expectations than anyone around him and, of course, displayed as tireless a work ethic as one could ever imagine.
In order to fulfill the high expectations of enormous success and subsequent stardom, firm belief that the artist is deserving of this end result seems to me to have been a crucial element for Gordon. Why? Because he treated his artists like stars, oftentimes even before they actually were stars (this certainly was the case with Alice Cooper; to a degree this was true of Anne Murray too; and it absolutely was true of the chefs that he represented in the culinary world). Furthermore, Gordon made sure that the rest of the world viewed his artists as stars, whether the world loved them or despised them. One important way that Gordon achieved the goal of making sure his artists were viewed as stars was via a tactic he calls “guilt by association.” Reference to this can be found in numerous places throughout the book, but most notably on page 70 in paragraph 1 (i.e. – “…the tactic I call ‘guilt by association.’ If you want to be famous, get next to somebody who already is famous.”) and page 126, paragraph 5 (i.e. – “…I’d learned two things with Alice: stars aren’t born, they’re made; and if you put someone with people who are acknowledged to be cool, they become cool by association.”).
4. Stretching is how you grow.
Shep Gordon never rested on his laurels throughout his career. He knew that his growth and learning would falter unless he continually set new challenges and goals for himself.
After the success he’d been having with Alice Cooper, Gordon’s peers thought he was crazy when he decided to take on Anne Murray (at what was still a relatively early juncture in his career) – Anne Murray’s musical style couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed to that of Alice Cooper…and because of this Gordon felt that there could be no more greater challenge for him than to see if he could successfully apply what he had learned with Alice to an artist such as Murray. In paragraph 1 on page 126, Gordon describes the scenario as follows: “No one was farther from Alice Cooper than Anne Murray, or would present more of a challenge…she appealed to a totally market than Alice did. If I could successfully apply what I’d learned with Alice to an artist like her, then I’d know that it (his success with Alice) wasn’t just luck, but a set of operating principles I could use for any client. If I failed, that would be an important lesson, too. I didn’t want to spend my life doing something I wasn’t really good at, just lucky at.” Gordon’s experiment was successful. It turned out that the same principles of management that he had used for Alice also worked for Anne Murray.
Later on in his life Gordon would use this mindset of stretching to help the largely unknown greatest chefs of the world become celebrated in the same way that musicians, actors, and others in the entertainment industry were recognized. Once again, Gordon’s peers thought he was nuts and were questioning whether he had lost his mind. In paragraph 1 on page 249, Gordon illustrates his thinking on this: “…now that I had the end of the road in my mind, I wasn’t going to let anyone else’s doubts stop me. I had always grown by setting myself new challenges. They thought I was crazy when I took on Anne Murray. They thought it was a stretch when I decided to work with Groucho and Raquel Welch. But stretching is how you grow. I knew I had to build the highway to get there, just like I had for Alice and my other artists. That’s always been my method. If you can see the goal, no matter how distant it might seem at the start, it makes it easier to start creating the path to it.”
Gordon was enormously successful in raising awareness about the greatest chefs in the world and elevating their status in the eyes of the masses. It is never easy to stretch, to push beyond your comfort zone…but it is necessary for growth. In paragraph 2 of page 249 heading into page 250, Gordon continues to discuss the mindset involved in the process of achieving new goals: “Not that getting there is easy. I had worked myself nearly to death getting Alice there, and getting chefs there wasn’t going to be any less demanding. But having the goal in sight makes each step on the path easier to figure out, and every bump and pothole in the road more manageable. Instead of being defeated by challenges, you think, Okay, how do we get around this so we can continue the journey? One day and one step at a time, but always knowing where you ultimately want to be.”
5. Honor stands alone in importance above all else in both business and life.
Through the gentle example of his father, Shep Gordon learned at a very early age about the importance of being honorable in his interactions with others. This mindset is a way of life for him and has always strongly influenced the way he conducts business. It is for the sake of operating on honor that all of the “contracts” between Gordon and his artists consist merely of a handshake and his word – never once did he have a written contract between himself and any of the artists he managed.
If this mindset of being honorable ever needed hammering home in any way for Gordon, the Dalai Lama (whom Gordon had a fair amount of interaction with later in his life) did just that for him, as he illustrates in paragraph 2 on page 225: “(His Holiness) did what he said he was going to do because he said he was going to do it. After my years dealing with Hollywood, where basically nobody’s word is as good as his bond and everyone will say or do anything out of self-interest, this had a powerful impact on me. Maybe it reminded me of my father, an honorable man who kept his word. It’s how I’ve always tried to live and conduct business, and why I never wanted written contracts. Once an artist an I gave each other our word, I felt that was all I needed.”
In paragraph 3 on page 225 Gordon continues on this path of discussion as it relates to his business approach: “At the same time, I never allowed my artists to provide any services for anyone else without contracts. It was my fiduciary responsibility to them. So if any of my artists chose to screw me, that was my problem, and if anyone chose to screw my artists, that was also my problem!”
Gordon concludes with the following in paragraph 4 on page 225: “In retrospect, I probably should have signed contracts with my artists. I was always looking ahead to their future, but never to my own. Because I made sure that my artists had strong contracts with their record companies, they’ve received royalties through their lifetimes. But when my handshake relationships with my artists ended, so did my income, whereas most managers continue to earn a percentage of their artists’ royalties in perpetuity. It was in a way very naïve of me to arrange things that way, even though it gave me a sense of inner strength.”
What the last sentence suggests to me is that the money was never nearly as important to Shep Gordon as the betterment in every way of the artists he represented was. And among countless other reasons, both professional and personal, I suspect that THAT reason in particular has had a large influence on why he is called “Supermensch”.
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