Hear the story of Talent Manager Shep Gordon, who created the careers of rockstar chefs like Emeril Lagasse and actual rock stars from Alice Cooper to The Pointer Sisters.
What’s the connection between Groucho Marx, Teddy Pendergrass, Raquel Welch, Rick James, Emeril Lagasse, and Alice Cooper? Their careers were all supported by talent manager Shep Gordon. Shep’s ability to anticipate potential and build relationships has helped him to develop some of the most iconic names in entertainment. Hear tales from his colorful career and how his reputation for empathy and trustworthiness has made him very successful and, as he explains, very happy too.
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David Mead: Welcome to Behind The Talent, a podcast from Indeed where we sit down with the people who find the people that drive industries, entertainment and culture. We’ll hear how they do it and expand our understanding of what it means to be a recruiter in today's world of work.
I'm David Mead. On today's show, the story of talent agent Shep Gordon told in his own words. Maybe you've seen Supermensch, the documentary that comedian Mike Myers directed about Shep. Maybe you've read his book, “They Call Me Supermensch.” Regardless, you know his work. Shep Gordon turns entertainers and media personalities into superstars. We're talking Groucho Marx, Ann Marie Blondie, Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross, Ben Vereen, Burton Cummings, and Squeeze. Also Frankie Valli, Gary Wright, George Clinton, Kenny Loggins, Pink Floyd, the Pointer Sisters, Raquel Welch, Rick James, and Stephanie Mills. And that's just some of them.
He's probably best known for turning a mild mannered singer/songwriter named Vincent Furnier into shock rocker Alice Cooper. Or maybe it's for single handedly creating the category of celebrity chefs. Shep is a trend spotter and a talent recruiter, but even more so, he's a relationship builder. His reputation for empathy and trustworthiness have helped him excel in fields known for dirty deals and double crossing. His philosophy is simple: Be of service to his clients and to all of humanity. It's made him very successful and, as Shep will explain, very happy too.
We asked the iconic supermensch to take a break from hosting luminaries at his beautiful home in Maui to spend some quality time with us via satellite interview. He didn't seem to mind.
Shep Gordon: My drive over was about 35 minutes. It was really beautiful. This morning I saw my first whale of the season, so I was really invigorated. The whales come here for about three or four months, and they're really magical.
David: I'm so curious to know what light bulb went off for you when you've realized that you just needed to make that change from the lifestyle that you had, where you thought, “You know what? I'm going to move to Maui and live on the beach.” I mean, just a complete shift. What was the ‘aha!’ moment there?
Shep: I was getting very successful. I was very young and I was having a great time. Every day was unbelievable. I was managing Alice Cooper, Groucho Marx, Raquel Welch, Blondie at like 25 years old. I'm driving a white Rolls Royce that my client gave me. I have the hottest nightclub in LA. I started to see the 27-year-olds die, Janis, Jimi, they started going, and I started to realize there were consequences. Again, I was loving every day, but I knew where this path was headed.
My ‘aha!’ moment” of my life was sitting in a restaurant having won the Cannes Film Festival with my first movie. James Coburn was there. Anthony Quinn was there. Barbara Streisand, Pavarotti. You know, these were my heroes, but I still felt a nudge somewhere in me. They were all looking around. They weren't the most comfortable people. Most of them were smoking cigarettes. A lot of knees were going up and down. And then into the room walked this amazingly calm, beautiful human being. All dressed in white, an elder gentleman. And everybody stopped talking and jumped up and got in line to hug him and kiss him. I love power. I've always been drawn to power. He obviously was powerful. Fame has always drawn me. Obviously, he was, to these people, he was more famous than them.
David (Narration): That respected and beloved gentleman was French Chef Roger Verge, one of the inventors of Nouvelle cuisine, which popularized lighter, fresher, healthier flavors. Unlike some famous chefs of the 60s and 70s, Roger Verge was not secretive about his recipes and techniques. He once said, “The more knowledge we share, the more the cuisine is enriched; we succeed if we make what we love popular.”
Shep: And when I met him, I said, “Wow, I think I met somebody who can show me how to get where I want to get and be happy and peaceful.” And this sort of light bulb went off and I said, “I need to be around him. I need to see how he deals with life.” I stayed that night and, this was before Uber, so I didn't know how I was getting home, [LAUGHS] but I had to meet him and I went over to him and I just told him, you know, I said, "I'm at risk. I'm really successful. I got lots of money. I can do anything. And would you let me hang out with you? I want to be your”—there was a show called Kung Fu and there was a kid, the grasshopper who used to sit at the feet of the wise Buddha—and I said, “I want to be your grasshopper.” [laughs]
And he looked at me [in a French accent], "I do not understand English so well." He had no idea what I was even talking about. [laughs] The conversation led to, “You know, if you'd like to be around, I will let you work in my kitchen. Do you know how to cook?" And the answer was no. And he gave me a couple of cooking schools to go to and I went and really worked at developing this relationship.
And once I found a path to be happy and comfortable and grateful, then I started to look for a place where that was the consciousness of the environment also, rather than, you know, crazy traffic and highways and noise and more plastic surgery and more this and more that. And I found my sanctuary where I could, you know, live in both worlds. So that was sort of my ‘aha!’ moment. It definitely came from a human being who mentored me, whether he knew it or not.
David (Narration): The character known as Alice Cooper that Shep helped create, took rock and roll to new extremes. Concert audiences marveled as Alice performed with a live boa constrictor wrapped around his neck. Alice chopped his head off with a guillotine every night, or so it appeared. Shep's idea of having Alice shot out of a cannon often failed, but it was always worth a try. Offstage, Alice was still "on," still in character, drawing public attention wherever he went. I was curious what kind of mind could dream up such crazy ideas.
Shep: I spent a lot of time alone as a child. So I would fantasize my world. When I went to college, I ended up pulling a hoax on the city of Buffalo. These freshmen were hysterically laughing. They have been up for days. They were studying for a biology test and they had just come across the Thallus of Marchantia, which is the sex organ of a fern.
David: [laughs] I don't think I took that class, but I'll have to take your word for it.
Shep: They're laughing about how, “Doesn't that sound like the head of a foreign country? [sings fanfare] The Thallus of Marchantia!” Which led to, over the course of the next few days, sending a Western Union telegram to the mayor of Buffalo that the Thallus of Marchantia was making his first visit to America. And he chose to come to Buffalo because he has a cousin there and would they give him a mayoral reception? And they fell for it. And we couldn't believe it. It's the front page of the paper the next day, "Thallus of Marchantia visiting America for the first time." One of the students, Artie Schein, getting on an airplane and a thousand people ended up at the airport with picket signs.
Shep: But I realized at that moment that you could create history. You didn't have to wait for it. When I started with Alice, we were desperate. We had nothing, we had no money. We were lucky ‘cause we hit on something, a theory that ended up proving to be true.
David: Which was...
Shep: Kids will always like music that parents hate. So we made a decision very early that rather than focus on the music, we would focus on pissing off parents. And that hence, Alice Cooper, hence dresses. If one of our fans brought Alice home and the door opened, what would the parents say?
David: That would definitely be a shock, no doubt.
Shep: The first time I thought of this, you know, creating history, I said, “I got it. This is a piece of cake. Let's get clear, plastic clothes so that you’re completely naked on stage. I put you up on stage. I’ll call the police. We get busted for being naked on stage. We'll get great press.” Parents will hate it, kids will love it. And they get on stage, completely naked. There's nobody in the room. And I go to a phone booth in the back by the bathroom and called the police, but by the time they come, the steam had fogged up their clothes. [laughs] So they walked in and like, walked right out. [laughs]
Shep: And that led into other things which were more successful.
David: When you're looking for these, this talent, whether it be in the music industry or in the food industry, are you looking for people who are likely to have long careers and not burn out? Or is short term success more interesting to you? How have you found that over your career?
Shep: That’s a great question. I did ... Alice and Anne Murray were my first two musical artists, both of whom weren't known.
David: And couldn't have been more similar. [laughs]
Shep: We hit really big with Alice. And I really didn't know how much I had to do with it. And before I dedicated my life to actually doing this for people, and for him, I wanted to make sure I was actually good at it. So I said to Alice, "I'm going to find the furthest thing away from you I can possibly find." [laughs] With creating history, what broke her was a picture with John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Alice and Micky Dolenz from The Monkees. That made Rolling Stone and that broke her. And that's creating history. You know, that wasn't random. I worked really hard to get that picture. [laughs]
David: Well, nice work. She went on to become a huge pop star.
Shep: And I realized after that, that I got really lucky ‘cause there's a magic that you can't put in a bottle and I can't define, that certain artists get with their audience.
My job was to try and take that magic and take that demand, look at the world, see what cultural revolutions were happening and make my artists that I work with the face of those revolutions.
Getting ahead of the trend
David (Narration): One of Shep Gordon's skills is observing pop culture trends and then, in effect, hiring for the future. Finding talent that can play a role in the continuation of those trends. That's how he came up with the idea for celebrity chefs and the deal he negotiated with The Food Network President Reese Schonfeld was a win-win.
Shep: Back in the late 80s, 10 minutes before the Super Bowl you could get a seat on the 50 yard line. An hour before a Broadway play, you could get a front row seat—if you had the money.
But if you wanted to get into Le Cirque in New York, the restaurant, you wanted to get into Charlie Trotter in Chicago, you wanted to get into Wolfgang Puck's restaurant or you wanted to get into Paul Prudhomme's restaurant—I don't care how much money you had—you could not get in, you just couldn't get in. That's demand. When I see demand like that, I know that if I can take a face—and in this case it was Emeril—and put it on that demand.
People want what he has. It's a matter of “how do I get it to enough people.” There were no delivery systems.
David: How do you get these people that are used to doing one thing and then introducing them to this idea of, “Wow, there's a different way to do this and the way that I've been going about my career can, I can make a positive shift?”
Shep: Everybody wants to be famous. Every single artist in every field. Every chef wants to be famous, every musician wants to be famous, and if they all think that someone has the answer to get them to fame and wealth, in their art form, they jump at it.
I signed everybody in one day. And there were 125 the greatest chefs in the world asking me if I would help them. So I had a really frank conversation with all of them. I said, “You know, first of all, you need broadcast.” And I told him this story about golf, which was a very famous story in the management business. Mark McCormack managed Arnold Palmer, and Arnold Palmer used to drive his own car from event to event. If he'd win he'd get, you know, $2,500. And Mark McCormack got golf on ABC Wide World of Sports and that led to—now Arnold Palmer—flies his plane to his own golf course where they’re doing the events. And they all had to agree to work for free for a certain amount of years and let me go out and find a partner who, because they were getting free talent, would commit to cable TV. Emeril—he was the only one who was willing to go to a video workshop. And he worked at it really hard.
I got Reese Schonfeld to agree to give each of the artists one 60-second commercial to sell anything they wanted to sell. So for each of the artists I created a product. And in Emeril's case, it was the spices. “How are we going to sell these spices to get people’s attention? Let's wake them up to watching the show, Bam!”
David: That's brilliant. That would really draw people's eyes back to the TV screen.
Shep: And give them something they can do at home. Give them the same way they can sing Michael Jackson in the shower. Give them a way to be you for a minute. Bam! And that's where Bam! came from.
David: And now we have viral media. We have, you know, celebrities and trends coming out of the woodwork overnight. So how do you distinguish between what's actually going to be a lasting trend and what's just noise?
Shep: For the most part, it really was just using the noise. It didn't have to last long. I would just hook on to it. I can remember going to a restaurant in LA. Everyone had just come from a preview of Jaws. Everybody said this is going to be the biggest movie ever. So I called a photographer, and I got Alice with a plastic shark in my swimming pool. And we took pictures of Alice for the week the movie came out, ‘cause I knew that was going to be a revolution, and we made Newsweek magazine.
David: As people become more and more famous and become more well-known and the tendency, I'm sure, is for egos to grow, how do you build relationships with difficult people who maybe have those inflated egos?
Shep: I've had artists that I see treat people not right. I don't want to be part of that. In my case, and I can really only speak for me, the economic rewards were less important than doing the job properly. That's why I never really signed contracts with any of my artists. Only Anne Murray is the only artist that I ever signed a contract with.
David: What makes you comfortable doing business that way?
Shep: I don't want to be there unless I'm needed, providing something really important to their career—whether it was guidance, whether it was stage direction—something that really added value plus.
David: Does it require more trust to do business that way or do you feel like there can be less?
Shep: I think less.
David: Okay. Interesting.
Shep: Yeah, I think a lot less. I think the weight of a contract is really weighty. You start thinking someone is screwing you because there's a contract. When I was managing Groucho, he'd always say, “You're Shep?” “Yeah, Groucho, I'm Shep.” “Funny, you don't look like a crook!”
Shep: ‘Cause that was always a perception.
David: Have you ever turned anybody down who came to you and said, “Hey, you know, you're a great manager. You've obviously helped all these people become famous. We want to become rich and famous”?
Shep: Oh yeah. I turned down, I still turn down so many acts a week, it's crazy. It's not about the commerce. Man, I've been turned down by a lot of acts. Van Halen talks about coming to my office when they were looking for a manager. And the first thing I told them was, “If you want to make the most amount of money, I’m the wrong guy. I'll get you in the history books, but I'm not good at squeezing the rock.”
David: So what about when you have to turn someone down? How do you handle that?
Shep: Really easy for me now ‘cause I'm sort of retired so I have a great excuse. Yeah, I think it's very difficult. I used to try and avoid being in that situation.
David: So taking into the context of a business where you've got several applicants applying for one particular position, what advice might you give for how to handle that rejection process? I mean ‘cause, be honest, there's only going to be one.
Shep: I think the best thing you can do for somebody is tell them why they're not accomplishing what they're trying to accomplish. Being of service!
David: Yeah, interesting.
Shep: You're being of service just as much by rejecting someone in an honest way as you are as accepting them. You know, be of service to that person.
David: What if you have somebody who can go wherever they want? You know, somebody who has choice, who, you know, they're not tied to you necessarily. How would you go about selling yourself to them to have them choose you?
Shep: In my case it's ... employees have stayed with me for 20, 30 years, driving really good cars, happy to have you talk to ‘em. [LAUGHS] I think there's so much to be said about the history of a human being. If you do your due diligence a little bit, you're gonna find out really fast.
Relationship-building and closing the deal
David: So Shep, let's talk a little bit about negotiations, which is a key part of being a manager or a recruiter in any line of work. Does there have to be a winner or a loser? Or is there really such a thing as the proverbial win-win?
Shep: Well, I try never to use the leverage to make a winner and a loser. It's not always possible. I just went through on a negotiation, I had now a remake of one of my movies. We had to find the middle ground. We had to find a place where the studio was happy, where we were happy, instead of trying to take everything.
Shep: Luckily for me, they, both of us, we both had the conversation about, listen, you're not going to win and I'm not going to win. Let's just go right down the middle, and both get something out of it.
Back when Alice was first becoming a headliner, we had a show in Tampa and we hired a young band to open for us. They were getting $250 for the night. I think we got $2,500 and a hurricane came. It was outdoors in Tampa and blew the stage away. We had had our deposit so we had $1,250. The opening act, ‘cause they were insignificant, couldn't demand any money, so they had nothing. The promoter ran for cover and I went back to Alice, and I said, "Listen, you know, there's this young band opening for us that was supposed to get $250. They're probably all staying in one hotel room, and now, don't even have money for the hotel room. We got $1,250, let's give 'em $150 so at least they can buy some food.” And he said, "Of course, are you kidding me?" And we gave 'em $150 bucks. Turned out it was a band that Sammy Hagar was in. And that led to me and Sammy 30 years later, out of that trust moment, doing Cabo Wabo Tequila, which we sold for $100 million.
David: Wow, what a great story!
Shep: That's more of a win-win. Everybody sort of wins, nobody loses. If you think of it in that way, it's easy to do it. I think less about negotiations than about life.
David: Relationships are so important to you. You're always having, you know, people over to your home and, you know, throwing parties and events where people can get together and come in and talk. And is the relationship that you have with your artists or with the chefs or those that you manage, is that different than the relationships that you have personally, do they blend?
Shep: They’re very different. Like Luther Vandross I managed, I would say 15 years? We lived less than a mile from each other. He never was at my home. We had dinner once in 15 years. Some would come stay with me in Hawaii. Some never went to Hawaii. Alice I see every day when he comes to my house for a month we're together every second. Teddy I used to, I was very close to. Other artists—Frankie Valli—I don't think I ever had a meal with. They all have different wants from the relationship. Blondie, Debbie used to cook me dinner. Each one was a very different relationship.
David: Is it because you sort of brought Alice Cooper up from, from relatively nothing? Is that dynamic what has changed or what changes that relationship with him?
Shep: Oh yeah. Oh, absolutely. We got through the wars. I mean, when we started Thursday night was rock soup night. That was what we ate. We put rocks in water and it was rock soup night. I've never heard Alice raise his voice. I've never heard him curse. He’s just a compassionate, beautiful human.
David: As you consider all of the different personalities and genres, is there a common thread among all those people that you are attracted to or that are attracted to you?
Shep: For me, my personal relationships are about service and I tend to go with artists who are compassionate and do a lot of charitable stuff. The chefs are all about service. To be a great chef, you have to love and care for your customer.
David: Representing all of these different people, managing all these different types of people in different genres and different industries and that you, you know, you don't necessarily have to like or be interested in everything that they do. Curious specifically about Alice Cooper: Do you like rock n’ roll?
Shep: No, not a big fan.
Shep: I made horror movies with John Carpenter and Wes Craven. I don't enjoy watching horror movies. I'd never seen my movies. But that didn't affect my job, which was to get them the freedom to make the movie they wanted to make.
David: So it really comes down to taking an interest in the person that you're managing. Making sure that they're successful in getting what they want to get out of the relationship.
Shep: Yeah. Nothing to do with my tastes or likes or ... at least for me. One of those other ‘aha!’ moments, maybe two or three years into my relationship with Mr. Verge. We had scheduled a friend at his restaurant for dinner, but his TV taping went late. When he got there, the restaurant was closed. So there was a place open a couple of blocks away. We went in cold, but the owner recognized him. And we sat down. We had 'em brought the food out and I didn't like mine at all. I left most of it on the plate, and he finished his plate and then he took my plate and he finished my plate. And when we went out of the restaurant, I said, "Mr. Verge, I didn't really like that food. Did you love it that much?" And he said, "Oh, Shep, it was horrible." And I said, "Horrible?! You finished both plates!” And he said, "Shep, the chef, he will be waiting at the door to see what I ate on these plates. He knows who I am. I did not wake up this morning to ruin his day. I can eat a little bad food."
Shep: That's so beautiful. That's the height of service and compassion. In that one little moment, he showed me a way to deal with the world that was other than totally selfish.
David: How have you incorporated this principle of selflessness as you manage these folks who, you know, again, in their position being recognized at the fame that they have, often might lean toward more selfishness for themselves?
Shep: There were some artists I never even approached about it. They just didn't have that light bulb. But when someone does, then I try and work with them especially, you know, on where they meet their public. When there's a disaster, I used to, I would send a little email to all the chefs saying, "Hey, guys, people are hungry in Louisiana. What are you going to do about it?" With the artists, I always tried to put something in the lobby—food drives or clothes drives or something. You can give your work a higher purpose and be really happy about it and go home to your kids and look at them and it doesn't cost you anything.
David: What about for industries where, you know, compassion and service maybe aren't on the top of the list? Let's say manufacturing or, you know, labor intensive type of jobs. How might you incorporate that into the hiring process so that people feel like I'm coming into a place that actually cares about me?
Shep: It's hard to do, but certainly you can make the person that you're hiring aware of the practices of the company. There are certain companies I go to where the employees are like ecstatic. They have these big cafeterias and recreations and bicycles for the people to use. And then there's other button-down really hardcore places where you sorta ... you're working in a steel mill, you have to separate your life from your work. But I'm sure even in those factories, there have to be some people thinking about how to make the experience of life a little bit better.
David: ‘Cause in the end, I mean, we're all human, right?
Shep: We're all human, yeah.
David: You have people over to your home. You have an unwritten rule, which is when people come over, they're not allowed to talk business.
Shep: You know, I try and think of my home here on Maui as a sanctuary. Where people can meet other people who have done something significant with their life. Whether it's raise beautiful children, build huge businesses, accomplish great sports stuff. It's so beautiful to see over the years the connections to come together and stay together. Once someone brings selfish into it, it just changes the vibe, you know? Anytime I’m sitting with people and I hear the word ‘I’ too many times, I always tell people, you know, "This is sort of like not an ‘I’ house. We try not to use the word ‘I’ too often."
David: And you're very intentional without, with how you set those up as well. You've got round tables with an empty chair at each one.
Shep: What usually happens at every event, there is somebody who everybody wants to meet. Thanksgiving, Wolfgang Puck came over. So I put a chair for him, and Bernie Taupin came over who writes all the lyrics for Elton John, and that's someone, no one ever really gets to meet and, and everyone idolizes. And it's just a nice little sanctuary and like a moment in life where nobody wants anything from you. And you can just, you know, let loose.
David: How are these philosophies that you bring to life at your home and at your gatherings, how are those applicable or how are those useful in a business context?
Shep: Oh, they're amazing in business context ‘cause I think for me, most of my business is really contacts and relationships. And coupons.
David: Yeah. Tell us about coupons.
Shep: I'm a really big believer in coupons, which is, you know, if someone does something, goes out of their way to do something for you, you owe them the same respect. So for me, I have a collection of great coupons from everybody eating at my house. But you know, I'll go out and I'll go to the mainland, I go to a restaurant in LA and a bottle of champagne will come over and it's a note from, "You don't know me, but I was at your house for dinner three years ago and it was amazing."
David: So they're not really physical coupons, but they work.
Shep: It gives me access to just about anything ‘cause everybody comes through the house and I find it's very rare that people don't pay back. If you don't ask for anything, when you do ask, as long as it's a reasonable request, it makes things really nice.
Taking risks to get rewards
David: What advice might you have for, you know, people who are looking for talent for, you know, recruiting, trying to get the right fit, to incorporate some of these ‘aha!’ moments that you've had?
Shep: To be open to change and, and I think most important of all is be open to failure. If you get it, an itch inside of you of what you think is gonna make you happy, search to change behavior to get to that place. You may be wrong the first time, you may have made the wrong choice, but so what? At least actively try.
David: Where did the courage come from for you to make some of these decisions that everyone was telling you, “No, this is the wrong decision to make,” and you just knew like, “You know what, I think this will work”?
Shep: A lot of it was track record. A lot of it was not having a contract. Teddy Pendergrass. The girls would go crazy. I went to Teddy and I said, “I got this idea, it's crazy, but I think it'll work.” And he said, “What is it?” I said, “Let's do concerts for women only, no men.”
Shep: I think I can get an amazing amount of press by doing it. He said, “Really?” Do you think it will work?” And I said, “You know, I think it'll work. I wouldn't bring it to you if it wouldn’t.” And everybody in his team went ballistic. The lawyer said he was going to resign because of the civil rights lawsuits that are going to come out of it. The record company said they were going to drop him because you can't do this, you can't negate the men, they’re our biggest audience. Radio stations won't play the, you know, just on and on and on and on. And we sold out all the concerts. We did the Greek Theater, we did Radio City. We didn't have one lawsuit. And it really launched his career. If you don't take chances, you don't get anywhere. So, you know, the first conversation I'd have with all my acts is, "I'm going to do some far out stuff. A lot of it's going to fail. If you're a guy who can't live with the failure, get another guy ‘cause I go to the edge of the cliff. But the edge of the cliff is what makes you famous. All the stuff in the middle doesn't matter."
David: I think it's safe to say, probably crazier than most folks, not in entertainment can do or can get away with. So let's say someone in the business of hiring is listening, that is listening in and is tempted to take a risk. They obviously won't be able to go as far out as you did. How do you know where to draw the line? What's your advice for how to know when to cross that line or not?
Shep: I don't know that there's any way to do that. I think it's a crap shoot that you try and manage every day. But I think if you don't take risks, you don't advance. So again, it depends. If you're hiring someone for an insurance company, you want someone who's never going to take a risk. You want someone who's going to play by the book. If you're hiring someone who's going to advertise your bank as opposed to (being) doing the books for the bank, you want someone who's a little crazy, who's gonna see some trend. That takes someone thinking out of the box.
David: How do you balance your client's desires and the desires of the record labels and TV networks and their other partners?
Shep: It's always an interesting ballet. I mean, you hope that you can get everybody on the same page. It normally comes down to who's paying for what ‘cause everything costs money. So I usually find it's not so much about the vision. So if you're an artist and you come in with an album title and songs that are finished and you want to have a billboard in Times Square telling people, they won't disagree that it's the right thing to do, it's just who's going to pay for it.
David: The record companies referred a lot of artists to you. So how did you keep those referrals coming?
Shep: I treated the record companies with a lot of respect. And I was very good at my job and what I would bring to these companies. I would come in with a finished album cover, a marketing campaign, a tour, the record, I eliminated all their work for them and in most cases we were successful.
I didn't really hang with the artist, but I spent a lot of time with record company people ‘cause I knew they were my lifeline. And I knew they were the ones that I would have to go to to get support. So if Columbia Records brought me, like in the case of Teddy Pendergrass or Luther, they brought me those artists. When I went back to them for money, it was harder for them to say no to me. I wasn't the enemy, I was part of their family.
Shep: Probably the same thing exists for recruiters. You know, if you're doing, if you have a business that you're supplying with good people, and it's consistent and you have an ability, if you find someone really exceptional that needs maybe a little more money than the company was offering—or maybe a little more freedom—that you can speak to the person at the company you're dealing with, and it built up some trust.
David: When you're looking for these people to help support these artists or chefs or those that they're going to be working with, do you have a particular role in mind for them and then you find somebody to fill it or do you just sort of all, are you always keeping your eyes open for people who have certain skills and abilities and then find something for them to do?
Shep: There were people who you'd go to ... who to hire, you know, who's good, who's looking. And there were certain people you develop your relationship with and if they send you some good people, you start to trust them. And you mold a position if you have to a little bit for the person based on what the recruiter tells you. I looked for different things. In a lot of cases you look just at the revenue generated by someone you're hiring. I would work with a promotion manager at a record company and I could see how good he was, that he could really get records on the air. And in the case of Luther Vandross, that's what kept his career. He had probably 15 number one records. So when I was looking for a person in my office to deal with that artist, I wanted promotion. I was able to go to that guy and say, "Listen, I'll give you a percentage of what I bring in against the base salary." And they knew they were going to make 10 times what they made at the record company. I looked for good human beings. I always felt I could train them.
David: Hm. Interesting.
Shep: Some of the things that I asked for my artists first and foremost was answer everything fast. Whether it's a positive answer, a negative answer, give people answers fast. If you don't give someone an answer fast, they make up their own answer in their mind and act on it. Secondly, don't think you know everything in the world. Use every resource you possibly can. Don't be scared to come in to me or anybody else you're working with, or the artist you're working with, and ask for advice. Tell them what you're thinking. Be honest.
David: Yeah, that goes a long way.
Shep: It’s like when I sit down my artists and say, you know, if I do my job perfectly, I may kill you. Honesty, that's the ingredient that makes everything work. And if you make a mistake, you make a mistake, take it on yourself honestly and correct it. Make it right. So when I was looking for a person in my office to deal with that artist, what I would say to them always is, “You're going to have to live with the artist 24/7 so you're probably going to spend half the money on psychiatrists.” And they'd all laugh at me and then they'd all [laughs] have to end up getting counseling. [laughs]
David: [laughs] Well, you were honest.
Shep: Each artist had a very respectable person, like half a million or million dollar players who were their manager. They were with them 24/7. I would tell them that my fees were 20% as a manager. But if you didn't need to see me or talk to me all the time, if I could put a person between me and them who could go on the road, who could take their calls at 1 in the morning, I would only charge them 15% not 20% and I never had an artist take the 20%. [laughs]
David: So you had good people working with them, but how did you maintain your own relationships with those artists as well?
Shep: I did my job. And if they ever would say to me, “You know, I haven't seen you...” Fire me, just fire me. There's no contract. If you don't think I'm doing what I should do, fire me. Pretty simple. But we never came to that ‘cause I worked really hard. I mean I got up earlier and went to bed later than anybody in my office and I was very responsible because I always, I would tell everybody in my office, “We don't have a normal job. We have a person's life in our hands. If we fail with Luther, we go on to Max or somebody else. Luther doesn't go on. He's got one life. You have a life in your hands. This is not like a joke.”
David: Before all this, you had a job as a probation officer. What did that teach you, if anything, about being a manager or a talent scout? Any way that ties in? [laughs]
Shep: You know, I lasted for maybe six hours. [laughs]
Shep: I have to think that somebody was pulling my marionette strings to get me to come to California to be a probation officer for six hours or I never would have ended up in the career I ended up in.
David: Yeah, it's amazing how one thing leads to the next.
David: Now when you recruit a talent, Shep, your reputation was obviously a big draw, but what about for new companies, new recruiters who haven't yet had the time to build up a reputation. Do you have any advice on how they can attract good talent too?
Shep: I know what attracts me. What appears to me to be a real charitable aspect to it, somebody who really cares—and I'm speaking personally—‘cause I know “not cares.” But for me, that's what attracts me to new things. For example, I get new wineries all the time that are asking me to help them get into restaurant lists. I got one a few months ago from a winemaker up in Boston, a lady who every time you buy a bottle of wine, donates a dozen oysters to the water beds in New England to clean up the waters. And I thought that was just so beautiful.
David: Yeah, I like that.
Shep: ‘Cause the water is what feeds the grapes and makes the wine taste good. I was doing an event somewhere and I invited her to be the wine at the event. And when I got to meet her, she really seemed real. And I’ve recommended her now three or four times to people. So for me, that's the attraction is honesty and realness and compassion. If you're a recruiting agency, or you have a new client, it's so easy to add a component, you know, to any event you're doing that does something good for somebody. Whether it's, you know, the food that's left over goes to feed the homeless or any little thing, just something that puts in my brain that this is not just about commerce. This is about compassionate commerce. Does that make sense?
David: It's perfect. What a wonderful way to end. One thing Shep, that I would just love to ask you, from a personal standpoint, is what do you want to be remembered for?
Shep: My girlfriend is pregnant, 15 weeks. I'd like to be remembered as a good father.
David (Narration): You heard right! Shep Gordon will be 75 in October of 2020, and he's contemplating fatherhood, still beginning new chapters in his amazing life and being of service to others.
Thank you for listening. Thanks to Shep Gordon for taking a little drive in Maui to tell us about his career, helping others build their careers.
I'm David Mead. We hope you'll subscribe for more episodes of Behind The Talent so you can meet more people like Shep, experts on building talented people into superstars in their line of work.
On our next episode, a superstar of human resources, Nicole Davidson. We'll have a candid conversation about the changes she's seeing in recruiting, hiring, and managing.
[tease of next episode]
Nicole Davidson: If you're in HR and recruiting in 2020 and beyond, we have to be “people geeks.” The most successful people in their careers and the most successful companies are going to be the ones who aren't afraid to be curious, to learn and to experiment.
David: That's on the next Behind The Talent.
Behind The Talent is a Wondery production brought to you by Indeed. Find more Behind The Talent as well as videos and articles about the world of recruiting at indeed.com/lead.