Clarence Avant, Entertainment’s ‘Black Godfather’, Dies at 92


NEW YORK (AP) — Clarence Avant, the thoughtful executive, entrepreneur, facilitator and consultant who launched or guided the careers of Quincy Jones, Bill Withers and many others, and known as the “Black Godfather” of music and beyond, has passed away. He was 92.

Avant, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles, according to a family statement released Monday.

Avant’s accomplishments were known both publicly and behind the scenes, as a name in the credits or as a name behind names. Born in a segregated hospital in North Carolina, he grew into a man of enduring and far-reaching influence, in part because he heeded two pieces of advice from an early mentor, music executive Joe Glaser: never reveal how much you know, and never ask you for as much money as possible “without stuttering”.

Sometimes called “The Godfather of Black Music,” he broke through as a manager in the 1950s with clients including singers Sarah Vaughan and Little Willie John, and composer Lalo Schifrin, who wrote the theme to “Mission: Impossible.” He was one of the early promoters of black-owned radio stations in the 1970s and ran Motown in the 1990s after founder Berry Gordy Jr. sold the company.

He also founded labels like Sussex (a hybrid of two avant-garde passions – success and sex) and Tabu with artists like Withers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the SOS Band and an obscure singer-songwriter. Sixto Rodriquez, made famous decades later by the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugarman. (Rodriquez passed away last week).

Other work went more calmly. Avant brokered the sale of Stax Records to Gulf and Western in 1968 after being recruited by Stax executive Al Bell to bridge entertainment and business. He raised money for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, helped Michael Jackson organize his first solo tour, and advised Narada Michael Walden, LA Reid and Babyface, among other younger admirers.

“Everybody in this business has stood at Clarence’s desk if they were smart,” Quincy Jones was fond of saying of him.

“Clarence leaves behind a loving family and a multitude of friends and associates who changed the world and will continue to change the world for generations to come. The joy of his legacy mitigates the sadness of our loss,” read the statement, released by Avant’s son Alex, daughter Nicole and her husband, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos.

Avant’s influence also extended to sports. He helped walk back Jim Brown He switched from football to acting and produced a prime-time television special for Muhammad Ali. When baseball star Henry Aaron was on the verge of surpassing Babe Ruth as the game’s home run champion in 1974, Avant made sure Aaron got the kind of lucrative commercial deals that were often hard for black athletes to get, starting with a personal demand to the President of Coca Cola.

Aaron later told The Undefeated that everything he became was thanks to Clarence Avant.

Avant met Jacqueline Gray, a then-model, at an Ebony Fashion Fair in the mid-1960s and married her in 1967. They had two children: record producer and manager Alexander Devore and Nicole Avant, the former US Ambassador to the Bahamas and together with Sarandos , a big fundraiser for Obama. In addition to his induction into the Rock Hall, his honors included two honorary Grammys, an NAACP Image Award and a BET Entrepreneur Award.

in 2021, Jacqueline Avant was murdered Bill Clinton and Magic Johnson, among others, mourned her death at her Beverly Hills home. Nicole Avant would credit her mother, who became a prominent philanthropist, for instilling “the love, passion, and importance of arts, culture, and entertainment” in Clarence Avant and other family members.

Born in 1931, Clarence Avant spent his early years in Greensboro, North Carolina, one of eight children raised by a single mother, and dropped out of high school to move north. A North Carolina friend helped him get a job running a lounge in Newark, New Jersey, and he soon met Glaser, whose clients ranged from Louis Armstrong to Barbra Streisand and Al Capone. Through Glaser, Avant was in places where blacks rarely had access.

“Mr. Glaser wanted me to go to those dog shows with him,” Avant told Variety in 2016. “And you gotta figure I was the only black guy at the damn dog show. He also had those 16 seats behind the guest bench in the Yankee Stadium, and whenever he would give me a ride, I would try to go to the back row, and he would grab me and say, ‘Damn, sit up here. Me.'”

Avant became particularly close to Jones, their bond formed through a missed record deal. It was the early 1960s and Jones was a vice president at Mercury Records, one of the few black executives in the industry. Representing jazz musician Jimmy Smith, Avant had heard that Mercury had recently signed Dizzy Gillespie for $100,000. For Smith, Avant aimed for a much higher goal, closer to half a million.

“Do you smoke Kool-Aid?” Jones recalled saying this to Avant, who then negotiated with Verve Records.

“He got the deal,” Jones, whose collaborations with Avant would include the TV series Heart and Soul and the feature film Stalingrad, told Billboard in 2006. “I respected him for that.”

As he rose in the entertainment industry, Avant became more politically active. He was an early supporter of Los Angeles’ first black mayor, Tom Bradley, and served as executive producer of Save the Children, a 1973 documentary about a concert fundraiser for Rev. Jesse’s “Operation PUSH.” Jackson. Three years earlier, when he learned that civil rights activist Andrew Young was running for Congress in Georgia, he called him.

“He said, ‘In Georgia are you running for Congress?'” Young later told CNN. “He said, ‘Well, if you’re crazy enough to run, I’m crazy enough to help you.'”

Avant, whom Young had never met, offered to invite Isaac Hayes and other entertainers in exchange for a fundraiser and arrange the event at Atlanta’s ballpark.

Young had forgotten their conversation when billboards for the show began to appear around town a month later.

“We had about 30,000 people in the pouring rain,” Young said. “And he never billed us.”

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