Issue 18.2: April/May 2015
Department

The Good Shepherd

From promoting rock stars to celebrity chefs, Shep Gordon is the man behind some of the biggest names in showbiz
Story by Derek Ferrar.

It’s New Year’s Eve afternoon on Maui, and fabled fame guru Shep Gordon is bopping along to screaming guitars as he oversees rehearsal for his annual star-studded New Year’s benefit bash. Onstage, shock-rock icon Alice Cooper’s backup band—which is serving as house band for the show—is nailing an impressive range of styles as a parade of Billboard names stops by to run through their numbers.

Alice, whom Shep has managed for more than forty-five years, is on the bill, of course. So are Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, another regular; balladeer Sarah McLachlan, a first-timer; a couple of Doobie Brothers; local hero Willie K; and even clown prince Weird Al Yankovic.

Shep’s ability to garner such star power for his New Year’s dinner and show, which benefit the local food bank and the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, is testament to his reputation as one of the best connected—and best liked—figures in showbiz, thanks to his Dalai Lama-inspired philosophy of “compassionate business.” For decades the longtime Maui resident flew under the public radar: His storied feats of rock mayhem, media madness and extraordinary human kindness were kept mainly within elite circles. But then his buddy Mike Myers blew the lid off the Shep Gordon story in 2013 with his acclaimed bio-doc Supermensch. (Mensch, of course, being a Yiddish term for “stand-up guy.”)

The movie features an Entertainment Tonight lineup of megastars telling Shep stories, from pals Myers and Michael Douglas to Willie Nelson and Sly Stallone. But beyond being a loving tribute, the film is something of a meditation on the pursuit and price of fame, which Shep calls “scary” and Myers has been known to call “toxic.” At the beginning of Supermensch, Shep recalls how he used to sit new clients down, take off his glasses and warn them in dead earnest: “If I do my job perfectly, I will probably kill you.”

After rehearsing a few manic spoof songs from his latest album, Weird Al takes a break in a lobby chair, looking surprisingly, well, normal. Like many of the performers, he has a place on Maui, and this is his fourth time playing Shep’s benefit. So, does Shep really live up to his supermensch rep? “Yeah, he really is a sweetheart,” the Weird One replies. “I’d do anything for him. I’ll mow his lawn for him if he likes!”

Maui Food Bank Development Director Marlene Rice, who is heading a crew of volunteers making decorations for the concert this evening, notes that Shep’s benefit donations have paid for close to 170,000 meals so far. On an island where ten thousand people a month need food assistance, she says, “Shep’s generosity helps make sure that no one in our Island ‘ohana goes to bed hungry.”

Growing up on Long Island, Shep (that’s his real name, by the way—shortened from his grandfather’s Shepsil) had a rough relationship with his domineering mother but was very close to his father, an accountant who himself was known as something of a mensch.

“My father was very gentle, always kind to everyone, compassionate, put other people before him,” the 69-year-old Gordon told an audience after a screening of Supermensch at the Tribeca Film Festival. “I think a mensch walks into a room and has an awareness of where there’s need and plays into that.”

In 1968, just out of college and after a short, ill-fated attempt at becoming a California probation officer, he randomly checked into the Hollywood’s Landmark Motor Hotel because there was a vacancy; he had no idea it was a rock-star hangout. In Supermensch, he recalls how he thought he heard a woman being assaulted by the pool downstairs. Mensch that he is, Shep rushed to the rescue only to discover that a consensual liaison was in progress, and he was rewarded for his efforts with a punch in the nose from one of the participants—who turned out to be Janis Joplin.

Janis, whose life would end at the Landmark a couple of years later, introduced Shep to other regulars like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. “Are you Jewish?” Jimi famously asked Shep, who responded in the affirmative. “Then you should be a manager.” As it happened Jimi knew of this starving cult band—Alice Cooper—and suggested that Shep manage them … and history was made. With his early partner Joe Greenberg, Shep set about devising the outrageous publicity gambits that would eventually make Alice the epitome of everything parents hated about rock ’n’ roll—and thus everything the kids loved.

Supermensch is full of Spinal Tap-ish reminiscences of those early antics, like coming up with a plan to get Alice arrested for indecency by having the band wear only see-through plastic outfits at a show. (It was foiled when the outfits fogged up, and there was nothing left to see by the time the cops got there.) The most infamous escapade of all happened at the 1969 Rock and Roll Revival festival in Toronto, where Shep had maneuvered to get Alice slotted between the Doors and John Lennon, who was making his first post-Beatles appearance. Not one to let such a golden attention-grabbing moment slip by, Shep brought a live chicken to the show and threw it out at Alice on stage with no warning, “just to see what he would do.”

Instinctively, Alice scooped up the star-crossed bird and tossed it toward the crowd, somehow thinking it would fly away. It didn’t, and the crowd promptly tore it to bits and threw the bloody remains back onstage. The next day, the headlines screamed, “Alice Cooper Tears Head Off Chicken,” and Cooper’s legend—and his superstardom—were made. For anyone else it might have been career-ruining bad press, Alice observes in Supermensch, “but for us it was what put us on the map.”

After hitting it big with Alice, Shep wanted to see whether his methods could translate to other kinds of talent, so he took on clean-cut Canadian folk singer Anne Murray. To boost her rock cred, Shep employed one of his prime fame-making techniques, which he calls “guilt by association.” At the time, Alice led a hard-core drinking club called the Hollywood Vampires, which included the likes of Lennon, Harry Nilsson and wildman Who drummer Keith Moon. Shep begged them to come to one of Murray’s gigs and snap a photo with her, and the resulting shot helped make Murray’s career.

When he became soul singer Teddy Pendergrass’ manager, transforming him into a sizzling sex symbol in the process, Shep discovered that Pendergrass and other black artists often weren’t paid for their performances on what was known as the “chitlin’ circuit,” believing they had to play for free to get their records played on the radio. In keeping with his managerial maxim of “always remembering to get the money,” Shep took on the gangster-ridden system and was eventually able to win a fairer deal for the artists. It was, he says, the proudest moment of his career, although he admits that he had to make some com-promises “when the time came that a gun was pointed at my head, and I knew the guy would pull the trigger if I didn’t give in.”

As New Year’s evening falls, guests line up for the start of Shep’s bash. Tickets are by invitation only and run more than $500, but even so, he says, the four hundred seats flew out the door, and there’s a waiting list of over a thousand.

Out on the floor of Māla Wailea, the restaurant Shep co-owns at the Marriott resort, Top Chef star Sheldon Simeon—who shares the space with his own concept eatery, Migrant—is buffing out the buffet for the dinner portion of the evening. With the local-boy style and easy smile that made him a TV fan favorite, Simeon says Shep is a very laid-back guy to work with, “but he’s definitely a businessman. I’ve never seen anybody who could balance business and heart like that. The way he talks to a dishwasher is the same way he talks to [Chez Panisse founder and famed chef] Alice Waters.”

Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, Emeril Lagasse, Sammy Hagar and Gordon.
Courtesy Shep Gordon

Shep wasn’t always the culinary devotee he is today; in fact, he used to be what he describes as a dedicated “macaroni and ketchup guy,” with maybe a little Sara Lee for dessert. Then one day in the early ’80s, after he helped launch a groundbreaking independent film company responsible for such pictures as Koyaanisqatsi and Kiss of the Spider Woman, he was at the Cannes Film Festival and was invited to the temple of nouveau cuisine, Moulin de Mougins. The place was packed with double-A-list celebrities, Shep recalls, and then, like a radiant vision in white, the restaurant’s legendary chef Roger Vergé appeared on the floor, a gracious and quietly powerful presence who instantly drew the adulation of every box office star in the room.

Shep—by this point hugely successful but starting to get strung out on the high life—didn’t really know who Vergé was, but he was entranced. Here was someone who was both successful and seemingly happy. “I went over to him and told him I wanted to be his Grasshopper, like on the TV show Kung Fu,” Shep recounts. “I don’t think he had any idea what I was talking about, but he said if I learned to cook I could come spend time with him in his kitchen.” So off Shep went to cooking school, and feeding people has been his joy and passion since.

Vergé taught Shep “the art of the dinner party”: how it’s all about focusing com-pletely on your guests. “Mr. Vergé taught me that it’s never about you,” he says, “and I began to see that his happiness came from making other people happy.” Eventually Shep started managing Vergé’s visiting-chef road tours and soon discovered that not only was the great culinary artist unpaid for these high-priced appearances, but he was put up in shabby rooms and not even allowed to eat in the front of the restaurant—shades of the chitlin’ circuit.

Before he knew it, Shep had a new business representing a roster of chefs from Paul Prudhomme to Wolfgang Puck, and he was looking for ways to monetize their talents. With Shep’s typical luck, the Food Network was starting up around that time, and he saw an opportunity for one of his signature win-win propositions: He would provide chefs to appear for free on the network in exchange for advertising time to promote his clients’ culinary products.

“I looked around and saw that celebrities had their own lines of products everywhere except in the supermarket,” he says, “and I knew this was a way we could get some money for the chefs.” Shep’s first poster child for the new formula was charismatic New Orleans sensation Emeril Lagasse, and—bam!—the era of the celebrity chef had dawned.

Being a Maui guy, Shep’s circle also included a few top Hawai‘i chefs who were trying to gain wider exposure. “I explained that it’s hard to promote an individual chef in a remote place like Hawai‘i,” Shep says. “What I told them was, you guys need a movement.” Twelve top Island chefs gathered in 1991 at Shep’s oceanfront compound in Wailea to cook and plan together, and thus was born Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine.

Gordon with the Dalai Lama, who inspired his philosophy of "compassionate business."
Courtesy Shep Gordon

Shep’s show delivers the goods as promised, from the opening Steven Tyler-Willie K duet on “Over the Rainbow” to Alice leading the closing musical group hug on Lennon’s “Revolution.” A few days later Shep is chilling at his storied Wailea pad, which has seen a Hollywood Boulevard’s share of celebrity footprints in its day. (“If the walls could talk at Shep’s house on Maui, they would never shut up,” Sammy Hagar says in Supermensch.) Sitting in his open-air living room draped in a faded purple sarong and a loose black T-shirt, Shep’s a vision of the Maui dream.

Maui, he likes to say, has “the personality of a baby, a kind of innocence and openness, and you don’t have to seal yourself away here and try to artificially control your environment.” He remembers seeing the island for the first time when he sailed over from O‘ahu in the early ’70s on a hydrofoil ferry: He got one foot on the dock, he says, and knew where he was going to live for the rest of his life.

Amid bamboo and Buddhist prayer flags, the walls of Shep’s home are packed with showbiz gems: gold and platinum records, an Abbey Road poster signed by all four of the Lads, frame after frame of star snaps and shelves of personal mementos from friends and clients ranging from Groucho Marx to Raquel Welch. Shep has a standing open-door policy for his friends. “I definitely channel my grandmother,” he says. “When people come to the house, I feed them almost before I say hello.”

One of the stars who took him up on the offer was Mike Myers, who first met Shep during the filming of Alice’s classic cameo in Wayne’s World. After the movie went ballistic and Myers’ father passed away in close succession, the comedian took refuge on Maui and wound up under Shep’s wing for a couple of months. In Supermensch, Myers recalls attending a lū‘au at the house with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stallone and a host of other household names. “It was like Madame Tussaud’s with a pig,” he says.

For years afterward, Myers bugged Shep to let him make a movie about his story, but Shep never wanted to step into the limelight himself. “There was no reason other than ego for me to be famous,” he says, “and I try to keep ego out of my life as much as I can.” But in 2012 Shep suffered what he calls a “heart attack of the intestine.” Very few people survive one, but he did. Myers called him up in his hospital room and asked, “So, are you ready to do the movie yet?”

“I was high on painkillers and feeling a little sorry for myself, so I agreed,” Shep says. “But I have to admit there’s part of me that’s been enjoying it.” He’s described the experience of seeing the movie as like “being alive at your own eulogy.”

Although officially retired for the past couple of decades, Shep still keeps his hand in a wide variety of ventures, mostly food-related. And after all these years he still manages Alice, who he says is “more like an appendage” than a client at this point. Looking back, he says, the hardest part was seeing people damaged by the fame he helped to bring them. Fame is always “a deal with the devil,” he says. “But for me it was how I paid for my lunch. It’s just that once you’re on the treadmill, you always want a bigger lunch.” HH

Story by Derek Ferrar. Photos by