Shep Gordon has a knack for playing a key role in seminal moments in popular culture. If there wasn’t already a film about him—Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, directed by Mike Myers—I’d be tempted to make a comparison to the lead character in Woody Allen’s famous film Zelig, who has a habit of showing up at historically important events.
The phrase “the man behind the man” is perhaps even more apt, since Gordon helped create and steer the careers of numerous famous acts, including Alice Cooper, an elderly Groucho Marx, Teddy Pendergrass, and Raquel Welch. He also had a hand in jump-starting the celebrity chef craze. One of his many feats was to help turn a young upstart chef named Emeril Lagasse, then running the kitchen of New Orleans institution Commander’s Palace, into an internationally known force of nature.
While his Rolodex would make him a powerbroker in just about any celebrity circle, for our drink on a recent evening, Gordon rolls into midtown Manhattan steakhouse Frankie & Johnnie’s with an entourage of just one publicist. That is, of course, unless you count a large table quickly filling with his college buddies from the University of Buffalo, many of whom he hasn’t seen in decades.
We settle at one end of the bowling lane—size bar. When the bartender comes over, Gordon cranes his neck to scan the liquor on the shelves and immediately asks if the restaurant stocks Sammy’s Beach Bum Rum, which is made by his friend Sammy Hagar. In addition to being old chums, Gordon and Hagar were partners on Cabo Wabo Tequila and often cook together when they are both in Hawaii. (Gordon has a home in Maui, where he has lived for decades.) “I love cooking with Sammy,” he says. “We really rock.” It doesn’t hurt that his Hawaii abode has a giant kitchen that any professional chef would covet, complete with a 12-burner stove, a salamander broiler, and a pizza oven. There is also a wine cave holding 2,000 bottles, including several Bordeaux wines from his birth year (1945) and a fully stocked bar with plenty of Scotch, bourbon, rum, and a ton of vodka. “A lot of people have very specific vodka thoughts,” he explains.
Alas, Frankie & Johnnie’s does not carry Hagar’s rum, but the restaurant does have Casamigos Tequila, which is made by Gordon’s other friends, Rande Gerber and George Clooney. (Do you see a pattern forming here?) We order two Margaritas, made with the brand’s blanco tequila and without a salted rim. Befitting our surroundings, they arrive in sizable hurricane glasses. They are no doubt made with a premade sour mix and not with the damiana tequila liqueur (a supposed aphrodisiac) that Gordon swears by. But the drinks go down smoothly.
Cabo Wabo Tequila wasn’t the only spirit that Gordon has worked on. Years ago, he partnered with Willie Nelson on Old Whiskey River Bourbon, a six-year-old whiskey that came adorned with a guitar pick. Despite the creative packaging, the liquor was perhaps too far ahead of its time and failed to catch on. “If Willy’s product was out now, I think it would do really well,” says Gordon. He tried once to restart it, but was unable to get his hands on aged American whiskey, which, thanks to a recent popularity surge, is currently in short supply.
Gordon has no desire to get back into the spirits business now and has, in fact, been retired for years. But he seems plenty busy to me. His memoir, They Call Me Supermensch: A Backstage Pass to the Amazing Worlds of Film, Food, and Rock’n’Roll, was just published by Anthony Bourdain’s HarperCollins imprint, and Gordon has been pounding the pavement to promote it. “Retirement has a new definition for me,” he says, setting up the punchline. “It means you do exactly the same thing, but you don’t get paid.”
Part of that “same thing” is playing host to a parade of stars at his Maui residence. He estimates that his guest house is occupied 75 to 100 days a year. The craziest part is that he doesn’t really know many of his visitors before they arrive. He recently hosted professional wrestler Chris Jericho and his family for a week. They had met just once before, at a dinner for Clive Davis.
I had to ask: Do visits ever go badly? “Never,” he insists. But he does admit, “I’ve had times when I was happy people left, but it’s never been bad. It’s never been ugly. I’ve been pretty lucky.”
“It’s a great way to get to know people,” continues the supermensch, who truly believes in a kind of karmic circle of life. “It always comes back bigger than I give it.”
With that, and a few more sips, Gordon heads off to dinner, ready to entertain his college buddies.