Shep Gordon’s job is managing musicians and chefs and turning them into stars. Gordon created celebrities out of the likes of Alice Cooper and Anne Murray, but he says fame isn’t necessarily a good thing.
"I made excuses to myself for how I made a living and tried to do it as honorably as I could, but I can’t say that I’m proud," he tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. " … If you make someone famous, they have to pay a price."
After intentionally staying out of the spotlight throughout his career, Gordon is featured in a new documentary by Mike Myers called Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.
Gordon managed Blondie, Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross and he briefly managed George Clinton. He’s often credited with the recent "celebrity chef" phenomenon, with such clients as Roger Vergé, Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme.
Gordon says he’s been successful in his role behind the scenes.
"I think my job is accomplished much better if I’m invisible," Gordon says.
Supermensch creator Myers has been friends with Gordon for about 22 years. Myers, who wrote and starred in the Austin Powers movies and Wayne’s World and was the voice of the animated ogre Shrek, has been known to describe fame as a "toxic waste product."
"It’s the industrial disease of creativity," Myers tells Gross. "You want to make stuff, which is fantastic, and then this thing happens, which is very gratifying and I’m very grateful for it, but it does require a hazmat suit, a psychic hazmat suit."
On shaping Alice Cooper’s onstage persona
SG: I think everything we did — you have to remember the times, we’re talking about the early ’70s, early ’60s — so first think about a man named Alice, that was very, very, very bold. There was nothing like that on the landscape. Now think about a man named Alice in makeup and dresses — that’s way bolder. Then think about that person who could be your neighbor next door, could be a 60-year-old widow named Alice Cooper wearing that dress, chopping up a baby-doll onstage …
So everything we did went to that point. I would say the highlight of his career was the chicken incident [in which he threw a live chicken into the audience] … As Alice says, "What should’ve destroyed a career, made a career," and all of a sudden he became the Salvador Dali of rock ‘n’ roll.
On Gordon’s method of getting a spotlight on singer Anne Murray
MM: Shep’s theory is this idea of guilt by association. Shep said, "How I can help Anne Murray isget her on the [late-night TV show] Midnight Special — how I can get her on the Midnight Special is get her photographed with someone like John Lennon."
He begged, borrowed, [stole], got them to the Troubadour [a West Hollywood venue], they took a picture, the picture went around the world, she got booked to the Midnight Special, and she crossed over and she was in Rolling Stone and … as Shep says, "Sales went off the roof." He means "through the roof." That’s a Shep-ism.
SG: One of the dangers that I talk about is that fame now has become fame for fame’s sake. … But when I was doing it, it was really to put a spotlight on someone with true, real talent. I’m sure John Lennon was in pictures with a lot of people. Anne Murray deservedthe spotlight. I knew that if I could get a spotlight on her, if they heard her on Midnight Special, she was the real deal.
I never tried to fool the public. For me, I kept a sense of integrity. I wouldn’t take somebody who I didn’t think had talent. It’s really just a jump-start. Annie built a career … and it has been an amazing 35-year career. I look at [it] more as a spotlight, then I do as a trick.
On fame leading to addiction
SG: My job was to be honest, and this is how I made my living, but I knew I would hurt [my clients], especially when you become friendly. … [When] Alice [was] going through his alcoholism, that was so painful and I knew I was a big part of it. But I was honest with him and he could’ve maybe gotten [support] through someone else who wouldn’t have cared and then the pain could really hurt. … If I had to rewrite history, I’d love to get that part of what I did for my life out of the way, but they go hand-in-hand.
On Gordon having a health crisis while filming the documentary
MM: Shep is made out of the stuff that they should make airplanes out of. … They cut him open like a fish and pulled out yards and yards and yards of his intestines and then I said, "So, Shep, listen I love you. I’m so glad you’re well. If you don’t want to do this, that’s fine."
And in Shep’s — because he’s a man of few words often, he goes, "Oh no. No, I’m OK. It’ll be a couple weeks."
A couple weeks? What, are you kidding? … I hurt my wrist playing hockey and I was like, "Stop the world!" … I said, "Shep, you died." He did, he died on the table … And I said, you know, because I’m obsessed with all that stuff, "Dude, you left. Why do you think you came back?"
And he said, "You know what? I don’t really think of it as an ‘I came back’ situation. I’m not really attached that much."
And he’s not! I would be telling everybody. If I got into a cab I’d go, "Yeah, can I go to 42nd and 8th, please? Did I ever tell you about the time I died?"
… [Shep’s] a true Jew-Bu. He’s a Jewish-Buddhist.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon")
SHEP GORDON: If I do my job perfectly, I will probably kill you.
GROSS: That’s Shep Gordon. His job is managing musicians and chefs, turning them into stars. His clients want to be famous, but Gordon has learned fame can kill. After intentionally staying out of the spotlight himself throughout his career, Gordon is now the subject of a new documentary directed by Mike Myers called "Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon." Mike Myers and Shep Gordon are my guest. Mike Myers wrote and starred in the Austin Powers movies and "Wayne’s World" and was the voice of Shrek. He was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" from 1989 to ’95. Shep Gordon not only managed the career of Alice Cooper, he was instrumental in creating the persona and dreaming up some of the stage antics that made Alice famous. Gordon has also managed Anne Murray, Blondie, Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross and, briefly, George Clinton. He’s often credited with creating the recent celebrity chef phenomenon. Mike Myers and Shep Gordon have been friends for about 22 years. Mike Myers, Shep Gordon, welcome to FRESH AIR. Mike, let’s start with you. How did you meet Shep Gordon?
MIKE MYERS: I met Shep Gordon in 1992, on the set of "Wayne’s World." Shep Gordon of course is Alice Cooper’s manager and I wanted Alice Cooper to be in the film. And my two favorite songs were "18" and "Schools Out." Now, I had never even been in a film, let alone like written or being one of the guys in the film. And Lorne said, well, you know, there’s a little bit of a problem, you have to talk to his manager Shep Gordon. I’m going, OK, (Laughing). And so now I’m talking to this huge legendary rock ‘n roll manager and he says I’ve got some bad news for you, we’re not going to do "18" again and we’re not doing "Schools Out," we’re going to do something from the new album. And I was like, oh, no, I don’t know to do. Now, Shep had like a ponytail and he was wearing a satin tour jacket and I didn’t know what to do. And I said, well, I don’t want to do that. And he said, well, I happen to know you start filming in two weeks, you don’t have a choice. And he goes, you know, this song – I really – I would hate for you to say no to the song and not have heard this song. And he played it and I liked it. And it was a song called "Feed my Frankenstein." And I said, but, you know, that’s not what I wanted in the script. I didn’t know nothing, I’m an idiot from Toronto. He said I also happen to know this – that Alice will be on stage for approximately eight seconds and if you put "Schools Out" in the end credits people are going to think that’s the song that he sang. And everybody thinks that that’s the song that he sang. He was absolutely right. Years later I’m in Maui, the movie came out and it was a hit, like a big hit. I had no idea, I didn’t even know what a hit would look like. And so somebody told me you’ll have to stay in a hotel with an assumed name. I had an assumed name, like a fake name. And only my brother Paul would call through. Phone rings and I go, hey, Paul. And he’s like, it’s Shep Gordon, I understand you’re in Hawaii – where Shep lives. And I go, how did you get my number? He goes, it’s Hawaii. He goes, do you want to go to a luau with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold – first of all, Arnold not Arnold Schwarzenegger – Arnold and Whoopi. And I’m like, yeah, of course. And so I went and we become fast friends.
GROSS: So, Shep Gordon, let me get to you. The movie starts – "Supermensch" starts with the clip we just heard where you say if I do my job well, it will kill you. That’s what you tell your new clients. What do you mean by that?
GORDON: Well, I think fame is, you know, in some ways its fool’s gold. I think Mike really describes it the best of anyone I’ve heard. He calls it a toxic waste product of fame. And it truly is, you know, it’s…
MYERS: It’s a toxic – I would say it’s the industrial disease of creativity. Like, you want to make stuff, which is fantastic, and then this thing happens, which is very gratifying and I’m very grateful for it, but it does require a hazmat suit. A psychic hazmat suit.
GORDON: I had an interesting moment because I’ve never had to deal with fame I’ve only had to talk about it and try and protect people who are famous, and that’s very different than living that moment until, you know, there’s the old saying, until you walked in the shoes, you don’t really know the walk. And I have no true experience, but I had one moment during this process that really opened my eyes. I was walking to a meeting at the Algonquin Hotel. And I was doing what normal human beings do when they walk, they’re in their own mind, they’re thinking, they’re – maybe looking at stuff, they’re maybe singing a song. But they’re walking their path. And a girl I heard say, are you Shep, are you Shep Gordon? And I said I am. She said, oh, I work at CNN and I just saw the movie at a screening. And when I was a child I had some problems with my family, and I’d really love to talk you about how you overcame those feelings, and were successful. And I looked at my watch and I had to go to the Algonquin. And I really wanted to be compassionate with this person. And I had ditch her. And it made me think about all those years I spent protecting people from people like her. Making sure they couldn’t ask the question, never really thinking about what is the karmic price that the person in the middle who you’re blocking for really feels. Because on some level, even if it’s not conscious, they have to feel that love coming at them from people and not being able to answer it. It’s really hard to stay compassionate. And I only had it for a second. So those are hard things, those are things that fame bring that have no intrinsic value.
GROSS: That’s a really interesting point that you just made. That if you’re famous and everybody wants to talk to you or confess to you or just being near you, it’s hard to be compassionate because it’s mathematically impossible to allow everybody to have that access to you.
GORDON: How many times I’ve been with Alice where someone told him about the first concert they went to and they had to sneak out of their house, and they love telling him the story. It makes them feel good, it brings back memories. You don’t want to cut them off, but Alice could hear that 24 hours a day and never be able to have a thought in his mind.
GORDON: So he needs someone like me who protects him, but there’s a price you pay.
GROSS: You didn’t grow up with the idea of like, and then I’ll be a manager and manager of all these music stars and celebrity chefs. You kind of happen into it. Your first career lasted, it sounds like 24 hours.
GORDON: A little less.
GROSS: A little less, yeah, as a parole officer in a youth detention center just outside of LA. And as the movie tells the story, you know, after you failed at that immediately (Laughing) you go to LA. You stop at this hotel and at the hotel are people like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. And what I think I understood from the movie is that basically you had a lot of marijuana with you. And you were selling them marijuana. And it was through selling a lot of marijuana that you kind of became people’s not only dealer, but also their manager. Do I have that right? Did I interpret that correctly?
GORDON: Well, close. You have the pieces right. I had a fairly good business as a dealer to the celebrities in the hotel who were users. And they felt that I needed to have a legitimate business. Where the Chambers Brothers and Jimi Hendrix came from, the ghettos, if you had a new watch on, you had to tell the police – where’d you get the watch. In Long Island, nobody asked or cared. So I never really thought about that. So Jimi said one day, what’s your real job. And I don’t really have a job. And he said, you Jewish? And in my background, when someone asks you that question, you start running.
GORDON: But I knew he was faster than me so I just sort of said, yeah, I am. And had no idea that would be the luckiest moment of my life – ’cause, you’re Jewish, you should be a manager.
GORDON: ‘Cause I guess all the studios, all the agencies – or tourists – were run by Jews, who didn’t have the greatest reputation but nonetheless that’s what they did. And as Alice tells it, Willie Chambers – or Lester Chambers came over there where, Alice Cooper was living in their house, and said we found a Jew that will manage you and I think he might pay you also. And I was willing to pay him ’cause it was a front so they were a business expense.
GROSS: Wait, wait so who did you pay so you could manage them? Alice Cooper?
GORDON: I paid Alice 10 dollars a week to say I was his manager.
GROSS: Oh, that’s hysterical.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guests are Mike Myers and Shep Gordon. And Myers has just made a film about Shep Gordon. It’s called "Supermensch." And Shep Gordon is like this super manager whose – did things brilliantly behind the scenes to create fame for the people who he managed and those people include Alice Cooper, Anne Murray, Teddy Pendergrass, Blondie, Luther Vandross.
MYERS: Groucho Marx
GROSS: Groucho Marx .Yes, of course Groucho Marx was already famous.
MYERS: Infinitely. Yes, of course.
GROSS: So let’s take a short break and then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guests are Mike Myers and Shep Gordon. Mike Myers has made a new documentary about Shep Gordon. It’s called "Supermensch," and it’s about Shep Gordon and his work as a manager, doing things behind the scenes that were kind of brilliant, to help create fame for the people who he managed, including Alice Cooper, Anne Murray. He managed Teddy Pendergrass, Blondie, Luther Vandross. And it’s really an incredible behind-the-scenes look into fame – how fame is constructed and what happens when you become famous. When I interviewed Alice Cooper in 2007, I was really surprised and pleased at how aware he was of constructing the persona of Alice Cooper and how he saw it as a vaudeville act. And within the interview he, of course, credited you, as well – you know, for creating the whole Alice Cooper persona. And having seen the movie about you, Shep Gordon, the movie "Supermensch," now I really understand exactly how that was constructed, the Alice Cooper persona, and how much you contributed to that. And you knew that the way to get attention was to be seen as a rock act that was dangerous and that adults really hated and that, therefore, young people could really embrace. So…
GORDON: I would say – I would say knew is maybe too strong a word. Hoped…
GROSS: (Laughing) Hoped.
GORDON: (Laughing) Would probably be a much better word.
GROSS: So what’s an example of one of your favorite things that you did to make Alice Cooper seem dangerous?
GORDON: I think everything we did – you have to remember the times. We’re talking now about the early ’70s, late ’60s. So first think about a man named Alice, that was very, very, very bold. There was nothing like that on the landscape. Then think about a man named Alice in makeup and dresses. That’s way bolder. Then think about that person, who could be your neighbor next door – could be a 60-year-old widow named Alice Cooper – wearing that dress, chopping up a baby doll onstage, and having snakes and eating chickens. So everything we did went to that point. I would say the highlight of his career was the chicken incident because it really revolted everybody. There was nobody who wanted anyone to ever kill a chicken.
GROSS: OK, so…
GORDON: As Alice says, why don’t they pick on Colonel Sanders?
GORDON: I only killed one chicken.
GROSS: OK, let’s back up for a second. So the chicken story starts with you getting Alice Cooper placed on a rock festival when he wasn’t yet very well known. You got him placed in between – was it The Doors and John Lennon?
GORDON: Yeah it was an amazing moment. It was – John Lennon wanted to do something on his own. He really was an amazing human being. I would say of every musical artist that I’ve been near in my life, he was the most dedicated to using his power to really helping the planet, more than anyone I’ve ever met. And he really felt that a peace concert changed people’s lives significantly. I was there. I saw it. So to be able to put Alice on that show, I knew, would revolt everybody. This was a perfect moment in life, and it worked perfectly. What – as Alice says, what should’ve destroyed a career, made a career. And all of a sudden he became the Salvador Dali of rock ‘n roll.
GROSS: So the way – the way he described it when I interviewed him is like he’s on stage at this concert, in between The Doors and John Lennon, and suddenly there’s a chicken onstage. And he says, you know, I didn’t bring it. I don’t know how it got there. So you brought the chicken?
GORDON: I did.
GROSS: What were you thinking?
GORDON: (Laughing) I was thinking exactly that – that here’s a peace concert. Somehow this chicken’s going to get in serious trouble if it’s on the stage.
GORDON: And it’s got to be so juxtaposed position to what this whole concert was about that people had to hate him for doing it. And hatred is what we wanted.
GROSS: So I’m laughing because this is a hysterical story, but it really was unfair to the chicken. What happened was, Alice Cooper takes the chicken, throws it into the audience, and the audience starts tearing the chicken apart, which really sounds horrifying.
GORDON: Yeah, pretty horrifying.
GROSS: But there wasn’t a part of you that felt bad? Oh my God, this poor chicken, and what am I bringing out in these kids? I mean, not to dwell on this, but tearing apart a chicken isn’t exactly like, you know, protesting the war in Vietnam.
GORDON: I had a real epiphany ’cause I – as Alice always talks about, I end up writing the shows, for the most part. And I never could quite understand why I always wrote these shows. Why the chopping up the baby dolls, exactly? And I went to – in Bali, to a small village. And they did what they described to me as a tribal dance they’d been doing for generations. And it was "The Alice Show."
GORDON: Which blew my mind. So I started – but when I say "The Alice Show," a guy from the village – all the village starts dancing. One guy in the village gets black on his eyes. He starts killing the other villagers. He starts killing animals. The village goes into a trance. They’re all on the ground.
GROSS: When you say killing other villagers, this is…
GROSS: A pantomime thing.
GROSS: Ritualistically. Yeah. Right.
GORDON: This is ritualistically. The entire community is down. He’s the only one standing. And then they rise up and they kill him. And he comes back without the eye makeup, dressed in white, which is exactly "The Alice Show." Alice does these despicable crimes. He’s always dressed in black. He does the worst things you can do to society. He chops up baby dolls. He kills chickens. He molests snakes. He spits on people. He’s disgusting. And he almost wins. He beats up the nurse. He knocks out the cop. He has – you know, he’s killing everybody. And all of a sudden, they all come together. And they either bring him to a guillotine or they bring him to a hanging – somehow they kill him. The town rises up, kills him. He comes back dressed in white, reborn, doing "School’s Out." But when I looked back at it and I saw that play, I realized, wow. This is – this is very…
MYERS: It’s you tapping into something.
GORDON: Yeah. It’s really tribal. It’s really hitting a nerve that’s way beyond even us, in our writing, ever thought about.
GROSS: Shep Gordon, you’ve used the word vaudeville to describe Alice Cooper’s act. And Alice Cooper has used that word to describe his act. Groucho Marx had used that word to describe Alice Cooper’s act. He became a fan. You ended up managing Groucho Marx in his final years. Mike Myers, when you as an Alice Cooper fan…
GROSS: Realized that – oh, this is such a constructed act. It is kind of vaudeville. You know, Shep Gordon is kind of, you know, writing the act. Did that make you like Alice Cooper even more or did you feel, like, betrayed, like – oh, it’s not authentic?
MYERS: Oh, I liked him even more. See, I loved the theatricality of it. I knew it to be the burlesque of violence. You know, saying – a filmmaker that I worship is Quentin Tarantino.
GROSS: And you – you were in "Inglorious Bastards."
MYERS: I was in "Inglorious Bastards." I got the call one day. Again, I thought it was my brother, Paul, who does fantastic voices. And it was, like, Tarantino. And I’m like, yeah, can help you? He goes (Imitating Quentin Tarantino), yeah, I’m doing a film about Hitler gets killed. Do you want to play a British general explaining the mission? And I was like, am I being "Punk’d?" Of course I want to play a British general. Are you kidding? Both my parents were in – my mom was in the Royal Air Force, and my dad was in the Royal Engineers. I’m totally in. So I went back, just because I love his films, and I looked at all of the films. I just thought, you know, there are certain people who should be allowed to do Grand Guignol because they take it to such a fantastic, absurd level. Alice Cooper’s one of them, you know?
GROSS: I want you to tell – Shep Gordon, I want you to tell a little bit of the Anne Murray story. She’s just so the opposite of Alice Cooper. She’s, you know, a pop singer who has a kind of, you know, middle-of-the-road-ish sensibility – her most famous recording "Snowbird." So what was your plan to make her famous?
GORDON: (Laughing) I was managing Alice. We were getting successful. None of us knew why. I had opportunities to expand my management business, but I had no idea if I was a manager. There wasn’t a rule book. There wasn’t a handbook. And I thought, let me go as far away as I possibly can. When I was in Toronto with John Lennon I had met a producer named Brian Ahern, who had just cut a song called "Snowbird," with Anne Murray. She was a gym teacher from, I believe, Nova Scotia. And she worked on a summer TV show. And it was a good challenge ’cause it was the opposite of Alice. It was a pure singer. There were no frills, no story, no anything. It was as unblemished as you could possibly get unmanufactured. And it worked. We got her some pictures with John Lennon and Alice, and she had a great voice. And it really..
GROSS: But you set that up. You made it…
GORDON: I did. Yeah, I got..
GROSS: You invited John Lennon and other people…
GORDON: Alice had a group…
GROSS: To be at the club where she was performing. Yeah.
GORDON: Yeah. Alice had a group called The Hollywood Vampires, who met at the Rainbow Bar and Grill. And it was…
MYERS: But by the way, Shep, when you say a group, you mean a drinking club.
GORDON: A drinking club, usually.
GORDON: A drinking club – very, very heavy drinking club. It was Alice, John Lennon, Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson – all of whom knew how to drink – Micky Dolenz and Bernie Taupin. And they met at the Rainbow every night and would get as drunk as they could. Keith Moon would come dressed as a nurse one night, as a Nazi general the next night, a chauffeur the next night. It was insane. And I went over, and I begged him to come see Anne Murray at the Troubadour for a picture. And I think I ended up having to drive each of them for the next three or four months. I was their designated driver. But they came over and took a picture. And that picture went everywhere.
MYERS: Shep’s theory is this idea of guilt by association. Shep said, how I can help Anne Murray is get her on "The Midnight Special." How I can get her on "The Midnight Special" is get her photographed with someone like John Lennon. He begged, borrowed, steal – got them to the Troubadour. They took a picture. The picture went around the world. She got booked to "The Midnight Special," and she crossed over. And she was on – in Rolling Stone. And sales – as Shep say, sales went off the roof.
GORDON: (Laughing) Yes.
MYERS: He means through the roof.
GROSS: (Laughing) Yeah, right.
MYERS: That’s a Shep-ism.
GROSS: Mike Myers and Shep Gordon will be back in the second half of the show. Myer’s new documentary about Gordon is called "Supermensch." I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESPERADO")
ALICE COOPER: (Singing) I wear lace, and I wear black leather. My hands are lightning upon my gun. My shots are clean…
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Mike Myers and Shep Gordon. Myers directed the new documentary about Gordon called "Supermensch: The Legend Of Shep Gordon." Mensch is a Yiddish word meaning a person of integrity and honor. Gordon is a manager whose clients have included Alice Cooper, Anne Murray, Teddy Pendergrass, Blondie and George Clinton. He’s also often credited with starting the celebrity chef phenomenon. Mike Myers wrote and starred in the "Austin Powers" and "Wayne’s World" films, and is a former cast member of Saturday Night Live.
When we left off, Shep Gordon was talking about how he helped make Anne Murray famous by staging a group photo with her and John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Micky Dolenz and Alice Cooper. So Shep Gordon, does it make you kind of cynical about the public to know that the way to make somebody famous is to stage a photo? And people will actually think, oh, that must mean that she’s hip. Now I want to hear her.
GORDON: You know, I would…
GROSS: And that just, like, hearing the music isn’t going to be enough – that you have to do that kind of stuff and the people will eat it up?
GORDON: Right. I have a very different fix on that. And I think one of the dangers that I talk about is that fame, now, has become fame for fame’s sake. So maybe that’s possible now. But when I was doing it, it was really to put a spotlight on someone with true, real talent. You know, I’m sure John Lennon was in pictures with a lot of people. Anne Murray deserved the spotlight. I knew that if I could get a spotlight on her – if they heard her on "Midnight Special," she was the real deal. I, you know, I never try to fool the public. For me, I kept a sense of integrity. I wouldn’t take somebody who I didn’t think had talent. And it’s really just the jumpstart. Annie built a career without – you know, John Lennon didn’t follow her career, and it’s been an amazing 35-year career. So I look at it more as a spotlight than I do as a trick.
GORDON: And I think the audience – there’s so much information out there – the audience deserves and needs to have someone put a light on what really is good.
MYERS: Shep also loves artists. That’s the thing that – why I have been worshipping Shep for so many years and love him so much. He refuses to gossip. I will hear a piece of some – I’m not a big gossiper either. I do think it’s one of the sins, by the way. And I will hear something of somebody he knows, and unconsciously I will say, did you hear about blank and the blank. And Shep gets quiet and he looks at his hands. And I go, you don’t want to talk about this do you? And he’ll go, you know, I just think there’s more positive things to talk about.
MYERS: This is the guy who knows – he knows everything about everyone. He’s human – he’s sodium pentothol in human form. He knows everything about everyone and refuses to talk, which is why everybody loves him. You’re safe, dude – it’s – Shep is a walking…
GROSS: Do you see that as part of your job, Shep, to like, keep people’s secrets?
GORDON: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely, I think. I don’t – again, I don’t look at it as keeping people’s secrets at all.
GORDON: Yeah, just…
GORDON: Yeah. Dignity, respect.
GROSS: So let’s talk about Teddy Pendergrass a little bit because you started managing him after he went solo, following his time with Howard Melvin and the Blue Notes. And you tell this great story about how he performed, and one night when you started managing him and didn’t get paid. And it was really hard for you to collect the money, and you were kind of shocked by this. Would you tell the story?
GORDON: Yeah, there was a circuit, as I later found out, called the chitlen’ circuit, which is pretty famous in the world of R&B and black music. And it was a circuit of clubs and arenas in the major markets of America who were, for the most part, owned by the radio station in the city or had some relationship with the radio station. And black artists would go into these rooms and play. The record company would set it up. They wouldn’t get paid but they thought that was the only way they could get the radio station to play their song – was to play the club. I’m sure it was a form of payola that someone figured out. There was no money exchanging hands, so the government couldn’t bust them or something. But what happened was this mentality of accepting the fact that they weren’t getting paid, and that didn’t work for me. And Teddy was very big at the time, and he was – you know, he took a real chance. He trusted me, and we went out to break the circuit. And it was scary. This movie is 90 minutes. You can’t tell everything.
GORDON: But the night at the Roxy that we talked about, there were death threats by them. The FBI was everywhere around the place. It was the first time we played a white hall and the first time we said we were going to break this chitlin’ circuit. And it was scary, but we got through. And we got picketed…
GROSS: Why were there death threats? Where were they coming from?
GORDON: A lot of people made a lot of money off the chitlin’ circuit. It was a very big business, and it was not – you know, it was a time of gangsterism in the music business – a lot of Italian mob, a lot of Afro-American mob. You know, a lot of people went to jail during that era for a lot of stuff that wasn’t friendly.
GORDON: And this was big business. I mean, you know, we played – we sold out Radio City Music Hall. We had probably a thousand pickets outside. There were organized pickets against – there was no legitimate reason for a black man not to play Radio City Music Hall, except that he was getting paid.
GROSS: Well, what did the picket signs say?
GORDON: Union unfair, blah, blah, blah. I don’t even remember. I’m sure there’s pictures of it. They – you know…
MYERS: It was completely trumped out.
GORDON: Yeah, completely trumped up. But it was big business. This was – you know, the chitlin’ circuit was very big business, I think fairly well documented. And it was a couple of acts. I remember Earth, Wind and Fire came in right on the back of us and started playing places like Madison Square Garden – Donna Summer. We weren’t the only ones to break, but I think Teddy was the first one to really stand up. His past manager had been shot to death so he had a position to – he had a strong platform to speak from.
GROSS: Well, that must have scared you a little bit, no?
GORDON: I mean, it all scared me but again, I don’t know how to describe it – I’d wake up in the morning, do what I do, go to sleep. If someone killed me, they killed me. It didn’t – it wasn’t part of the fabric.
MYERS: But also with Shep – you know, Shep – Shep’s a hippie.
MYERS: It’s that fantastic era of people who really did want to change the world. And that’s been Shep’s M.O. from day one, is looking at something and – he’s very, very sensitive to injustice.
GROSS: And that…
GORDON: You have to do something, it’s – you know, it’s one person at a time. You have to do something.
GROSS: In 1982 when Teddy Pendergrass was in a car accident and became quadriplegic, you were the one who had to tell him that he was paralyzed and would never walk again. Why were you the one who had to deliver that news?
GORDON: You know, that’s my memory. And as the movie shows, sometimes my memory is jaded. So I don’t want to write in stone, a hundred percent. My memory of it is I got off the elevator. He had nobody significant in his life at that time. His mother was very old, but he didn’t have a wife. The children were too young. And it was a very tough thing to tell somebody. And I was sort of the – I think the father-figure manager. I was more than just manager in Teddy’s life. We had our lives threatened. When you – you know, when your life is threatened with someone you go to a different place and you get through it. It’s almost like soldiers in a battlefield. You can’t describe what that bond is, but there’s a bond that’s different than a manager-client bond, and we had that. I remember I told him, and then we went right to his house and started listening I told – said to his mother and – we had to go out to the house and find tapes that haven’t been released because we’re going to need money. And he had spent every dime he had. And we went from the hospital to the house and found some songs that had never been released that were sitting around the living room and then tracked it out. And that’s – got the record out.
GORDON: But it was not my favorite moment.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guests are Shep Gordon and Mike Myers. Mike Myers of Saturday Night Live and "Austin Powers" fame has made a documentary about his longtime friend, Shep Gordon, who is a longtime manager of such people as Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass, Anne Murray, Blondie, George Clinton. And the documentary is called "Supermensch: The Legend Of Shep Gordon." Let’s take a short break, then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are Mike Myers of "Saturday Night Live," "Wayne’s World" and "Austin Powers" fame and Shep Gordon, a manager who helped make a lot of his clients famous. Myer’s new documentary about Gordon is called "Supermensch."
I want to get back to what you say at the very beginning of "Supermensch," Shep Gordon. You say that you always told your clients, you would say to them, if I do my job it’s going to kill you, implying that fame can be very, very dangerous. Did you ever have regrets about making somebody famous, seeing how they were changed by fame and how fame, maybe, hurt their lives?
GORDON: Yeah, every time. My job was to be honest. And this is how I made my living. But I knew I would hurt them. And especially when you become friendly, which didn’t happen with every client, but when they become your friend, you know, when I saw Alice, having, going through his alcoholism, that was so painful. And I knew I was a big part of it. But I was honest with him, and, you know, he could’ve maybe gotten it through someone else who wouldn’t have cared. And then the pain could really hurt. So I just, you know, I made excuses to myself for how I made a living, and tried to do as honorably as I could. But I can’t say that I’m proud of, you know. If I had a rewrite history, I’d love to get that part of what I did for my life out of the way, but it, they go hand-in-hand. If you make someone famous, they have to pay a price.
GROSS: Did you pay any of the prices of fame, even though your name wasn’t famous, but you were constantly surrounded by famous people, people who you helped make famous?
GORDON: No. I think my, i think most of my pain was probably self-inflicted, in that I use my work as an excuse to not have to deal with my personal life. It became a very easy way to not have a life, and not have to deal with all those big issues that having a life can bring.
GROSS: I can’t do that now, I’m too busy. That kind of thing?
GORDON: Exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a useful tool. (Laughing).
GROSS: Well, you know, it’s funny. In the movie, you talk about how, you know, you really regret that you don’t have any children. You’d love to have a baby. You were married and then divorced. You wanted a child, didn’t work out. So now I think, after this movie, you’re going to get all of this, all these women contacting you, I think, saying that they want to have a baby with you.
GORDON: I am. You’re right.
GROSS: Are you expecting that to happen? That’s going to be, and I’m serious, and that’s going to be kind of odd.
GORDON: It’s been happening at the screenings. It’s…
GORDON: …It’s odd but it’s wonderful. I mean it’s, you know, I’ve tried to take it in a really positive, good way, and pay attention to each one of them. Just be honest about it, but it is…
GROSS: So what do you say when you’re being honest about it?
GORDON: …Yeah, I think there’s a lot of people like me out there looking to have a child. There are a lot of lonely people. You know, it’s just – it’s the nature of our society. So…
GROSS: Do you consider yourself lonely?
GORDON: Yeah, at times I do. Yeah, absolutely. Not unhappy. I’m happy almost every day, I’m really lucky. But there are times I’m definitely lonely.
GROSS: So two weeks into this documentary being made, a documentary about you, "Supermensch," you nearly died. What happened?
GORDON: I had what they call a heart attack of the stomach, which is, I guess, good cholesterol blocker. But it’s more dangerous than a heart attack because it’s hard to diagnose and hard to find. So only a lucky few get through, and I was one of the lucky few.
GROSS: Did you know what was going on? Did you think you were…
GORDON: No, no. Not at all. I was completely, you know, it’s funny. I’ve had a few diseases that I knew about. And those moments are amazing, when you face your mortality in the, in the mirror. It’s so scary, and so, it brings up, I mean, it really is, what a moment. And I’ve had cancer, and I’ve had some stints, and I’ve had those moments. In this one, I had pain and passed out, and truthfully if I hadn’t come back, it would’ve been OK. I love cooking, and they talk about when a fish gets hooked, it releases a poison in its system, just like any animal. An adrenaline, they release adrenaline at that moment of death, and I sort of felt like if it had happened, if I hadn’t come through my stints or my cancer, I probably would’ve had that in my body. But on this particular journey, I was completely at peace. I could have been eaten well.
GROSS: Mike Myers, I’m wondering what was going through your mind when Shep nearly died because he’s not only the subject of the documentary that you had just started, he’s also a dear friend.
MYERS: Well, he’s a dear friend. I mean, you know, I worked so long to get him to say yes.
MYERS: Literally he would say to people, yeah Michael wants to do this movie, is that crazy? Is that crazy that he wants to this movie? And Shep kept texting me going, is this ego? He was playing golf and I get a text from Hawaii, is this ego? Is this, and I go no Shep, it’s legacy and it’s a legacy you deserve. You’re responsible, you’re the Lamaze birth coach of so much culture that, that people need to know that. And the other thing too, is you’re a lovely human being, who’s managed to make a fantastic living and still maintain his humanity. But of course, two weeks into the filming, I get the call from his fantastic assistant Nancy Meola, who’s this fantastic, beautiful person. And she said Shep is in a coma, I don’t know if he’s going to make it. And I, and I cried. But because I grew up in a house where my parents are from Liverpool, I turned to my wife Kelly and I said we have our ending.
GORDON: Yeah, see I was just going to say good for ticket sales.
MYERS: Which (laughing) – which is, you have to do that…
MYERS: When something horrible happened, my dad would say all right, how fast can we find this funny?
GROSS: Oh, well, but you hadn’t shot enough to have a film, let alone an ending?
MYERS: No, you just gathered stuff…
MYERS: …Wanted to do it, got a question list. It’s like, what? It was…
GROSS: But did you have to decide, like when it was clear that it looked like he was going to pull through, like were you going to bring the cameras into the hospital room and interview him as he’s starting to regain his health? You know, how…
MYERS: Well, no, because…
MYERS: Shep is made out of the stuff that they should make airplanes out of. He can’t be killed by conventional weapons. And so his recovery was like, he was like doing handsprings within three weeks (laughs). Like they cut him open like a fish, and they like pulled out yards and yards and yards of his intestines. And then I said, so, Shep, listen dude, I love you. I’m so glad you’re well. If you don’t want to do this, that’s fine. And in Shep’s, because he’s a man of few words often, he goes, oh no, no, I’m OK.
MYERS: Like, OK. Yeah, yeah, yeah it’ll be a couple of weeks. A couple of weeks? What you kidding? A couple of weeks? You know, I mean, I, you know, I hurt my wrist playing hockey and I was like, stop the world. He’s like, they cut him open, literally like had parts of them here, and parts of him there. And he’s like yeah, I should be back in a couple weeks. And he was. The guy’s a horse. I couldn’t believe it. And I said to him, I said Shep, you died. He did. He died on the table.
GROSS: He flat lined?
MYERS: Yeah. And I said, you know, because I’m obsessed with all that stuff, you know. I said dude, you left. And why do you think you came back? He said, you know what? I don’t really think of it as I came back situation. I’m not really attached that much.
MYERS: And he’s not. I would be telling everybody. I’d be like, if I got into a cab I’d go, yeah, can I go to 42nd and 8th please. Did I ever tell you about the time I died?
MYERS: You know, Shep was like, yeah, I never really thought of it that way. He’s a true Jew-Bu. He’s a true…
MYERS: He’s a Jewish Buddhist, yeah, a self-described Jew-Bu.
GROSS: My guests are Mike Myers and Shep Gordon. Myer’s new documentary about Gordon is called "Supermensch." We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: So if you’re just joining us I have two guests. Mike Myers, who is am alum of "Saturday Night Live" and of course the Austin Powers films, directed a new documentary about his dear friend Shep Gordon. Shep Gordon is a manager who has come up with like brilliant publicity schemes and many other ways of helping to bring fame to his clients and then protecting them once they become famous. Those clients include Alice Cooper, Anne Murray, Teddy Pendergrass, Blondie, George Clinton for a while, Luther Vandross.
GORDON: Oh, yeah. I love George Clinton.
GROSS: So the documentary is called "Supermensch." So Mike Myers had been saying that during the period when he was trying to convince you to do the movie, you were going to do it, but you also had second thoughts about it. You would be texting him like, is this ego? And I’m thinking, you know, you’ve met the Dalai Lama. You know a lot about Buddhism, and that’s all about, you know, not being ego.
GROSS: And fame is so bound with ego, and it seems, you know, like one of those great paradoxes that, you know, you’re embracing Buddhism but also have been so much a part of, like, the fame machine and have had to deal with so much ego.
GORDON: Yeah, I think there’s not a lot in my life that makes sense.
GORDON: But I think there – you know, the beautiful thing about Buddhism is that it’s all perfect. There’s no judgments at all – never to be judgmental, just be compassionate. If fame is what someone wants and you explain to them what the price is for it and you can help them achieve what they want – even if you know there’s a heavy price to pay – that’s very much within the realm of what a good Buddhist, I think, would do. I don’t know. I’m not a practicing Buddhist. But I think…
MYERS: You’re a living Buddhist though dude. You’re not even attached to consistency.
GORDON: So, yeah, no, I don’t think – I think they work hand-in-hand. And I think in some ways, fame has been fantastic for his holiness because it’s brought the plight of his people to the public awareness. Without his fame, it would never have – people would not be enlightened about the problem.
GROSS: Did you help him with that?
GORDON: No, I don’t think so. I mean, maybe in a small way, in some subtle way. I did a lot of events with them and maybe guided some things, but I wouldn’t take any credit for it at all.
GROSS: Some managers are famous, and I’m thinking about Ari Emanuel and "Entourage," the show that’s kind of loosely based on him. I’m sure you would’ve had that opportunity if you wanted it, to be a name like that. You know, you are so not famous outside of that world, you don’t have a Wikipedia entry.
MYERS: I know.
GROSS: In fact, when I found out. Wait, really when I found out you didn’t have a Wikipedia entry, my first reaction was, oh, no, the film is actually a mockumentary and not a real documentary. The whole thing’s made up.
GROSS: No, really. And then I actually…
GORDON: That’s great.
GROSS: I actually…
MYERS: That’s great.
GROSS: I actually had – I went and made sure there other sources early on that cited you. I checked you out on my interview with, you know, with Alice Cooper. And he’d mentioned you, and I thought, phew, OK, it’s not imaginary. This guy is real.
GORDON: Yeah, I think my job is accomplished much better if I’m invisible. In a compassionate way – I don’t mean this in a degrading way – but I always thought of myself as a puppeteer, but in a good way. But always, you know, you don’t want to see the puppeteer. It takes away from the power of the performance.
That was always – I felt my job was to not – it was great for me. I never wanted to be in the pictures. I never wanted to be in the – you know, it’s funny because there are moments now, having gone through this, where I had taken a picture with Salvador Dali. And I went way out of my way not to.
MYERS: So imagine, like, doing a documentary on somebody who is one of the most famous people that nobody knows. He’s show-business famous. He’s famous to the famous and having virtually no photographs with any of these people.
MYERS: And I’m like, dude, a Polaroid? Something.
GORDON: (Laughing) Something.
MYERS: A court reporter sketch.
MYERS: You know. Help me out people. But we did find stuff.
GORDON: You did an amazing job. Mike did an amazing job.
MYERS: We had great researchers. And our editor, Joe Krings, is fantastic, just a genius. We just truffle-pigged you out, dude, and found stuff. We hunted you down like the animal you are.
GORDON: Stuff I had never seen.
GROSS: So it sounds, like, that Mike Myers making this movie about his dear friend Shep Gordon did not hurt the friendship.
GORDON: Strengthened it, if it could get stronger. I don’t know if it can get stronger. If anything strengthened it.
MYERS: No, I loved Shep going into this, and then as I came to know more and more about him, I love him even more. And, yeah, he’s a friend of the family. He’s, you know – when my daughter, Sunday, was born, I was just thinking, gee, I wonder when Shep’s coming to town.
GORDON: For me, I think – entrust my life to someone is way beyond even friendship. And I didn’t it see until Mike finished, but I knew it would be what it should be.
GROSS: Well, it was a really good film. I thank you both so much for talking with us. Shep Gordon, Mike Myers, thank you both so much.
GORDON: Thank you so much.
MYERS: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Mike Myers’ new documentary about Shep Gordon is called "Supermensch." We have an interview extra for you. It’s the story of how Shep Gordon introduced George Clinton to the Dalai Lama. That’s on SoundCloud at soundcloud.com/freshair.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCHOOL’S OUT")
COOPER: (Singing) Well, we got no choice. All the girls and boys making all that noise ’cause they found new toys. Well, we can’t salute you, can’t find a flag. If that don’t suit you, that’s a drag. School’s out for summer. School’s out forever…
GROSS: I want to thank Dave Davies for hosting last week while I took the week off. I’m Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.Tags: concert, film, movie, music, producer, release, singer, tour, tv