\Here talent manager and producer Shep Gordon shares five important lessons from his autobiography They Call Me Supermensch, which details his series of misadventures as an artist manager beginning in the 1970s.
Guest post by Stephanie Grimes of William Patterson University from Musicbiz 101
Shep Gordon’s story begins as a boy growing up in Oceanside, Long Island who spent most of his time sitting in his room to avoid the unhinged family dog. After his childhood of isolation, he escaped to upstate New York to attend the University of Buffalo where he spent more time dealing drugs and pulling pranks than attending actual class. Although it may not have been the most traditional method to hone his skills as a manager, Gordon’s deviancy led him on a path to become a calculating, out-of-the-box thinker.
After scraping by with a diploma in sociology, Gordon headed off to California to become a probation officer for juvenile offenders. In an ironic twist of fate, he quit his admirable efforts in four short hours only to stumble upon the likes of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix at the Landmark Hotel, which would become the headquarters for his new drug-dealing operation. To avoid suspicion from the cops, Gordon began managing a group of five cross-dressing teenagers that would soon become the international rock legends, Alice Cooper. This series of events would send him on journey of creating iconic PR stunts and fighting against corrupt industry executives, making him the man that could break any artist.
Gordon’s skills at career management did not end with music; his foray into movie production led him to the Cannes Film Festival and to the chef Roger Vergé. His friendship with Vergé opened Gordon’s eyes to the opportunity of garnering chefs the respect they deserved and, ultimately, to the creation of the celebrity chef.
Call Me Supermensch chronicles the ups and downs of managing a variety of artists who were more than just their on-stage personas, but rather complex individuals. Although his story is filled with mistakes and moral questionability, Shep Gordon reached the pinnacle of artist management and left his readers with many valuable lessons along the way:
1. Create History, Don’t Wait For It To Happen
Probably the biggest theme throughout Gordon’s book—and what he would label his modus operandi—is the idea of creating history; he believes strongly that it is up to you to create the path that will ultimately lead to your goal. In Gordon’s case, this meant anything from calling in fake tips to the police (p. 67) to wrapping paper panties around vinyl records (p. 95) to staging women-only concerts (p. 187). His ingenuity and wild stunts are what made him the great manager he was; if he played it safe during his career, he would not have been able to accomplish his goals which would lay a foundation for future managers to build upon.
Alice Cooper’s Rock and Rock Hall of Fame induction in 2011
2. Collect Coupons
Typically, when we think of forming relationships with others in the business, we call it “networking.” Shep Gordon approaches relationships with the idea of “coupons” or, more simply put, trading favors. He acknowledges that his level of success could not have been achieved without the help of others and granted “coupons” to individuals like Marty Kriegel, who helped him graduate college (p. 46); Terry O’Neill, the Fleet Street photographer who was the mastermind behind some of Gordon’s biggest press exploits (p. 142); and Bob Krasnow, the chairman of Elektra who help Gordon get Teddy Pendergrass the money he needed after his accident (p. 200). Once he dealt out his “coupons,” Gordon was true to his word and would repay those who helped him along the way, no matter the cost.
3. Just Roll With It
Any good manager knows you have to roll with the punches, and Shep Gordon is no different. Throughout his book, you’ll find the phrase “don’t get mad, accomplish your goals;” this version of taking things as they come meant that Gordon would refocus on the situation and not let emotions cloud his judgement. This lesson is best illustrated when Gordon was fighting to secure the money that Philadelphia International Records was wrongfully withholding from Teddy Pendergrass (p. 194-203). Even though he was dealing with the potential loss of his client and friend, Gordon put his emotions aside to cleverly outwit the corrupt label by enlisting the help of Bob Krasnow and Luther Vandross to create a million-dollar soundtrack deal.
4. Good Guys Don’t Always Finish Last
Throughout the entertainment industry, there is a misconception that, in order to build yourself up, you must tear others down. However, Gordon understood this to be a poor business practice and opted, rather, to do “compassionate business” (p. 164). He followed this principle from the beginning –paying back bounced checks to cheap motels that housed him and Alice Cooper during tour (p. 68)—until the end—creating win-win situations in business and never needing a contract between himself and his clients in order to be bound to his word (p. 225).
5. Be Grateful
Maybe the most subtle lesson taught by Gordon is that of gratitude. At the end of almost every portion of his book, he closes with the phrase “thank you, thank you,” acknowledging that his success was not created solely by him, but was rather through the culmination of hard work, collaboration, and good luck (p. 8-295).
Stephanie Grimes is a graduate student at William Paterson University working towards her MBA Music Management. She completed her BS in business administration: management with minors in international business and marketing from Oklahoma State University in 2016. She is currently a publishing operations intern at Songtrust.
I've always loved jazz ...my mother was a classical pianist and my aunt was a blues singer, who was managed by Clarence Williams (Bessie Smith's producer). As a young boy, they introduced me to people like Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Jimmy Smith
I've always loved jazz ...my mother was a classical pianist and my aunt was a blues singer, who was managed by Clarence Williams (Bessie Smith's producer). As a young boy, they introduced me to people like Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Jimmy Smith. We hung out at my Aunt Kate's Soul Food restaurant in Harlem after the matinees at the Apollo where I listened to their stories. I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician from then on. My mother wanted me to play piano, but my Aunt bought me a guitar. I've been playing ever since.
At my mother's early prompting, I first sang Blue Velvet at my Catholic elementary school...and all the nuns came running in and asked me to sing again, so I knew I must have sounded pretty good. I've been singing ever since.
I met Tony Bennett in Miami and he inspired me to return to New York. He was a great mentor.
The best show I ever attended is mpossible to say, I've seen so many great shows. From Tony Bennett to Pat Martino, Return to Forever to Weather Report...I've seen some great performances.
My advice to new listeners is don't let jazz intimidate you, the music has something for every listener and it is our American gift to the world.