“They Call Me Supermensch: A Backstage Pass to the Amazing Worlds of Film, Food, and Rock'n'Roll,” by Shep Gordon
Apparently I missed Shep Gordon’s 15 minutes of fame, when the documentary about him, “Supermensch,” aired on A&E in 2013. It delves into the life experiences that led up to Shep’s success in, as he subtitles this autobiography, “the amazing worlds of film, food, and rock ‘n’ roll.”
This book could easily be called, “The Art of the Shmooze.” Shep developed a knack early on for making and keeping personal relationships that he eventually turned into opportunities for himself, but always providing something in return when people did favors for him.
Shep grew up in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, populated by Eastern European Jews and Italians. His main memory of his maternal grandmother was that every time they went to visit her, when they opened the door to her apartment, they could see her frying latkes in the kitchen. He still uses her chicken soup recipe. He rarely saw any of his father’s family, due to a nasty divorce that led to most of them not speaking to one another.
Shep felt ignored at home, with his brother Eddie being the favorite. Eddie was a budding veterinarian whose dog hated Shep, to the point that Shep ate his meals alone in his bedroom to avoid the dog, and he never understood why his parents seemed to choose a mean dog over him.
A scholarship to the University of Buffalo was a way out of an oppressive situation more than an educational opportunity. He admits he spent most of his time partying and socializing, and was granted a degree in sociology mainly as a favor. He ran a poker game, was a small-time drug dealer, and orchestrated a visit from a fake foreign dignitary that resulted in a huge protest at the campus B’nai B’rith. He quickly left the New York area after college, first taking a job as a parole officer outside of L.A., a job at which he lasted for exactly one day
With little money, he took a room at the cheapest motel he could find, the Landmark. It just happened to be where struggling rock musicians also stayed, and within a few days he had met Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and a variety of groupies. He was making his money selling drugs to them, and Jimi Hendrix warned him that the police tended to investigate people living there who seemed to not have a job, and asked him if he was Jewish. Since many people in the music management business are Jewish, Hendrix suggested he find a band to manage. Alice Cooper was just starting out and needed a manager so Shep became a talent manager.
What followed were several years of antics and intentional scandals, since any publicity is good publicity when you are trying to become famous. When concert venues assumed that Alice Cooper was a folk act like Joni Mitchell, Shep didn’t clarify, so audiences and especially parents hated Alice Cooper and protested and booed, just the perfect thing to appeal to disenfranchised youth.
But on the business side, word got around that in a profession where most people assumed they would be lied to and ripped off, Shep could be counted on to keep his word, so it wasn’t long until clients started approaching him to represent them. Inevitably there were occasions when people took advantage of his trusting nature, but even then, his personal motto was, “Don’t get mad, accomplish your goal.” That kept him moving forward rather than ruminating on how he had been wronged.
Shep always enjoyed cooking, and providing the food for some parties at the Cannes film festival gave him the idea of parties featuring particular chefs. He had quite a bit to do with the current “celebrity chef” phenomenon by bringing chefs out of the kitchen and focusing attention on them and developing brands. He organized many of the better chefs in order to get them fair compensation for their work, and he provided talent such as Emeril Lagasse when the Food Network was just getting started. Shep considers it one of the high points of his life when he provided the food for the Dalai Lama’s visits in several cities. He was greatly impacted by meeting the Dalai Lama personally, and in his later years he has pursued some Buddhist practices.
A section of photographs shows Shep with many of the celebrities he has represented over the years in music, film, and the food world. In his 60s he slowed down a bit after major emergency intestinal surgery, and he spends some of his time in a small town in Hawaii. He thinks about retiring, but new opportunities always seem to tempt him to take up a new adventure.
Looking back, his only regret is that he never had a long-term marriage or biological children, but because of the financial and emotional support he gave to a family of children who were orphaned, he now has a large foster family that fills that space in his life. Shep’s generosity over the years in both his work and personal life are deserving of the moniker “Supermensch.”