Have you seen Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon? It’s a weirdly frenetic biographical documentary profiling legendary talent manager Shep Gordon. It’s directed by Mike Myers. It employs some pretty out-there techniques I’ve never really seen in documentaries, like dubbing in audio recorded in the present over old footage to recreate conversations. And even though it’s a hollywood-insider story and a pretty unabashed celebration of its subject, it somehow stays relatable and human. I really liked it, but this isn’t a film review. And it’s full of spoilers (if one can spoil a biopic) I wanted to talk about how Shep is a PR genius. An outsider, who stumbled into the business and broke PR down to its essentials: getting attention, however you can. Here’s how he did it.
Step 1: Be Insanely Lucky (Right Place, Right Time)
Shep got into the business totally by happenstance. Pure luck really. The story told in the film is that he found himself in Los Angeles in the 1960s (after getting beat up on his first day on the job as a probation officer), checked into The Landmark Hotel on Franklin avenue, dropped some LSD and got himself punched in the face by Janis Joplin in a misguided attempt to rescue her from what he thought was a rape (she was actually willingly doing-it with Jimi Hendrix).
The following morning, he formerly introduced himself to the pair, and Jimi Hendrix famously told him “Are you Jewish? You should be a manager.”
And so, with nothing better to do, he obliged.
While few of us will have ever have the tremendous fortune of interrupting two of the most famous people in the world mid-coitus, it’s what Shep did with that luck that’s important. He was open to possibility, he saw opportunity and went for it, with what is later revealed to be serious commitment and passion. His lack of experience didn’t phase him. He’s a classic case of Faking It Until You Make It. And oh boy, does he ever Make It.
Step 2: Work your luck
Like many budding (pardon-the-pun) entrepreneurs of the period, Shep began his career in talent management by selling drugs. As the police began to close in on all the illicit goings-on at the Landmark, he decided to try his hand at actually managing talent, at least to bolster his cover-story should the cops-come-a-knocking.
So he starts managing. He starts handling bookings for the then unknown Alice Cooper. His first big PR insight, which drove the whole Alice Cooper brand strategy for the rest of their career was if you get the parents to hate you, the kids will love you. His first big stunt was having the band dress in transparent clothes so they were, for all intents and purposes, naked on stage. He then called the police claiming he was a concerned parent. The plan was that if Cooper was arrested for indecent exposure, they’d get some press. Of course, by the time the police arrived, the transparent clothes had fogged up. He realized, they couldn’t get arrested in Los Angeles, so it was time to go.
Shep then accompanies the band as the tour their way back to Detroit from LA. Legend has it that they skipped out on many a hotel bill, but when the money came in, Shep sent out cheques, always repaying his debts.
Detroit’s rock n’ roll scene at the time was vibrant and cutting edge. Groups like the Stooges and MC5 were tearing up stages. This was good, but presented Shep with a problem. How could he differentiate Alice Cooper? How could he get him the press he so badly needed to jump start his career?
Shep cites a professor he had back when he was studying sociology who said you could have cultural impact doing one of three things: sex, violence or rebellion. So Shep figured, “let’s do all three”. Cooper credits Shep with developing the band’s stage theatrics, which helped differentiate the band from the more essentialist garage-punk groups in the scene. Shep’s thinking was let’s develop something new, and stick with it.
Step 3: Fake It Until You Make It
“Alice is vaudeville,” says Shep. “The idea is to have the audience standing, and cheering. So we started doing things like putting dollar bills on the end of a sword. Alice would hold it over the crowd. The first row would jump to get it. Everybody else would stand up. Which had nothing to do particularly with the song he was singing but had the desired effect, which was get everybody having fun and standing and cheering. So we were looking for an ending of the show, and we were staying somewhere and there was a feather pillow so I said ‘let’s just steal the feather pillow’.”
They would open up the pillow, fill the venue with feathers which Shep noted would “make this fantastic thing for lights on stage and it wouldn’t cost us anything.”
Over time, the band became better and better at their live show, but didn’t know how to sell it. Shep, being a natural PR wizard understood that in order to be important, you have to seem important (again, fake it until you make it). So he started hiring photographers (oftentimes with no film in their cameras) to just flash “pictures” of Alice Cooper on the street. Pretend Paparazzi, to build buzz.
Cooper recalls “even when we were starving, Shep would implant in your head, you’re already a star. Act like a star.”
Again, displaying a preternatural knack for strategy, Shep says “the idea was to talk to an audience that’s much broader than your fan base, and the most effective thing for that is television. So we tried to do as many outrageous things we could to irritate people.”
And it worked. Over time, they started to develop a loyal audience in Detroit. But how were they going to get Alice Cooper the exposure they needed to go national and international?
Step 4: Skip the Quick Buck, Play the Long Game
Shep was invited to help organize the 1969’s Toronto Rock n’ Roll Revival Festival. It was the first time John Lennon was going to be performing without the Beatles. Shep was offered a whopping 30% of the proceeds for his help. Shep instead offered to waive any fees (opting for a $1 contract) in exchange for Alice Cooper getting the supremely coveted second-headliner spot, right after The Doors and just before John Lennon.
Think about that. 60,000 people attended. Shep could have made away with tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, but he understood the long-term returns of the right placement far exceeded that one-time payout. Now, all they needed to do was make a huge splash.
Step 5: Sacrifice a Chicken
This concert was of course the site of the infamous chicken incident. Midway into the set, a chicken appeared on stage. Shep had snuck it onto the stage. Cooper, not understanding that chickens can’t fly, infamously launched it into the audience, where the crowd proceeded to obliterate it.
Now, I’m not condoning animal sacrifice here. Not my thing. But if we can be completely dispassionate about it and look at it from a purely PR perspective, this absolutely nutso stunt worked magic. The chicken carcass made its way back on stage and then Cooper (reportedly, he’s coy about it) drank some chicken blood. Of course, the press drank it up as well.
“What should’ve been incredible horrible press for anyone became the thing that put us on the map. Now we could do anything we wanted to” says Cooper.
Step 6: Work Every Angle
While Shep has a reputation for being an honest broker, he’s also a pretty sharp businessman who knows how to drive a hard bargain. Cooper was signed to Frank Zappa’s record label, Straight Records, which was a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. When Zappa refused to work with the executive producer Shep secured because he was too mainstream, Shep went over his head to Warner Brothers and secured a huge budget for the production of the album.
Step 7: Know Your Influencers
After the album was made Zappa’s company refused to promote it, so the task of getting what Shep knew would be a hit album was on him.
This is where you get to appreciate just how strategic and savvy Shep was, and how close the ground he kept his ear. He knew CKLW, a radio station out of Windor ON, had a reputation as a major trendsetter and influencer. If you got heavy airplay on CKLW, American stations would follow suit and bring you into rotation. But how to break into CKLW?
Shep knew that recently imposed CRTC regulations required 25% of all Canadian radio time had to be devoted to Canadian talent. Because the album was recorded in Canada, it qualified. “CKLW promoted the album because they had to” says Shep. “Eighteen [the lead single] goes up the charts at CKLW, every other station in the country wants the track.”
He worked the rules to create demand. Brilliant.
Step 8: Break All The Rules
When it came time to break into the UK market, Shep booked Alice Cooper into Wembly Arena. Capacity was 10,000. They had only sold 50 tickets, because the band had no brand awareness in the UK. Shep being Shep, he eschewed traditional (expensive) advertising tactics and went for the king of all PR stunts. He and publicist Derek Taylor (the man sometimes credited with inventing Beatlemania) cooked up a plan to hire a truck, featuring a giant billboard of Cooper naked, with a boa constrictor covering his bits, and having it break down in the middle of Piccadilly Circus during rush hour. Shep told the driver “whatever you do, don’t move the truck”. Meanwhile, their press agent Caroyln Pfeiffer notified the press. Sure enough, they made the papers, the evening news and earned the ire of every parent in London. The result: the show sold out the next day.
Another example of Shep’s unconventional thinking was when he convinced Teddy Pendergrass to do a series of shows for women only, to play up his brand as a sex symbol (black Elvis, as Shep liked to say). Think about that. You’re effectively cutting your potential audience in half. It sounds insane, but again, Shep put the focus on building a brand, and again, it paid off in the long-term.
Step 9: Don’t Skimp on the Packaging
Shep understood that if something appealed to him, it would likely appeal to other people too. That’s what allowed him to experiment and pull of some truly out-there stunts. Shep is a self-confessed lover of women’s panties. So after Alice Cooper recorded the School’s Out ablum, Shep convinced the label to splurge on the packaging. The LP folded out into a school desk, and inside was the record, dressed in a pair of women’s panties.
Completely nuts. Completely outrageous. Way too expensive… And completely unique. Guaranteed to get attention. Predictably, the album sold millions of copies.
Step 10: Diversify and Innovate
After the success of Alice Cooper, Shep became the talent manager to the absolute A-List of celebrities. He could’ve rested on his laurels, sticking with hard rock bands, but he worked with and developed musicians as diverse as Anne Murray, Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendegrass, Willie Nelson and Blondie. He started representing actors too, like Michael Douglas and Sylvester Stallone. He started producing weird independent films with Carolyn Pfeiffer. He worked with people because he saw potential in them, it didn’t seem to matter much to Shep how famous they already were. Anne Murray was relatively unknown before Shep found her, but he liked what he heard and he liked her personally, so he helped her out.
Oh, and he invented the celebrity chef (check this NY Times Article from way back in 1993). He recalls the time he met 3-star Michelin chef Roger Verge at this restaurant Le Moulin de Mougins in Cannes. He describes being irresistibly drawn to him, and asking to learn how to cook from him. The two became friends and traveled the world for weeks at a time together. “What I saw in Mr. Verge”, Shep says, “was that you could be successful and happy. I had only really seen success and misery. And he was the first person I saw who had true success, mastered his craft, respect from his peers, and he was happy. He was always happy. His joy came from always putting the comfort of other people before him.”
As he toured with Verge, Shep noted the many parallels between the life of a world-class chef and a rock star, save for the fact that he was poorly paid and often asked to remain invisible, as he was ‘the help’. Shep being Shep, he couldn’t abide this, and in 1993 he founded Alive Culinary Resources to represent top chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Paul Prudhomme, and Charlie Trotter. In a review of Supermensch on Eater.Com, the reviewer writes “It is safe to say there would be no Food Network, no Bravo, probably no Eater without Shep Gordon.”
In another stroke of visionary genuis, Shep realized that celebrity chefs could be productized and put into grocery stores. Think about that. Without Shep, would we see Mario Batali or Jamie Oliver brand products in the grocery store today? He started that whole industry by putting Emril Lagasse’s spice line into supermarkets.
Step 11: Be a Mensch
The refrain throughout the film is that Shep is just a nice guy. He’s generous with his time and wealth, and does his best to make good with his friends and community. Look, I’m not here to judge the film on its cinematic merits. It’s a love letter from Myers to Shep, it’s rich with hyperbole and subjectivity. But still, the essential piece that comes through in all the interviews is that Shep isn’t cutthroat, doesn’t play a winner-take-all game and gets satisfaction from helping people. That’s an important lesson for anyone to learn, in business or in life.
One such example of his menschiness occurred in the early 1990s, when Mia Williams (the daughter of Shep’s former live-in girlfriend Winona Williams from a previous relationship) died in a tragic car accident, leaving behind 4 children to be raised by their financially struggling grandmother. “I have no idea if I can give anything emotionally,” Shep said to Williams, “but economically, I know at least for the next while, I can support all of you. So if you’ll give up your life for the next 18 years and raise them, I’ll pay for it.”
And of course, he did much more than support them financially; he became their grandfather. And took tremendous joy in that role.
Step 12: Be Self Aware
One of the things you immediately recognize while watching Shep is how self-aware and vulnerable he is. Rather, he’s acutely aware of his vulnerability and finds strength in it. Where many of his Hollywood A-list admirers have been known to drift into narcissistic territory, Shep seems to naturally pivot away from the shallow trappings of fame. At one point he describes Los Angeles as being “too focused on external things”. Shep seems to walk on the right side of that thin line between self-awareness and self-obsession.
Throughout the film, he acknowledges his tremendous good fortune, but he also openly admits his regrets. There’s a poignant bit at the end, where he talks about how we wished he made more time to raise a family, that family is the most important thing. It got to me. The film ends with him saying “yeah, I’ve always wanted to have a baby… But I haven’t given up. There still might be a, squirt left in me… Ha!”
It got to me because I have made the time to have a family. And even though I look at Shep and all the good luck he’s had and all that his illustrious career with a hint of yearning, he’d probably look right back at my wife, my son and I and feel the same way.
Moral of the story?
Count your blessings. Be fair. Be bold. Be grateful.
I don’t want this post to come off as pure adulation of Gordon. I don’t personally know him. All I’m basing the above on is the documentary, which makes no effort to conceal the fact that it is Myers’ love letter to Gordon. Does he come off like a decent guy in the film? He does, at least by his friends. But one’s supermenschiness cannot be measured exclusively on how they treat their friends. A broader measure of menschiness might need to consider how you treat the people you don’t know, or people in need.
And I don’t know if Shep was particularly charitable. It’s not addressed in the film. All I can see is that he was fair, bold, grateful and self-aware.