Clarence Avant (1931-2023)


Jem Aswad | Variety

Clarence Avant, whose unofficial title of the “Black Godfather” spanned the worlds of music, sports, entertainment and politics, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles, according to a statement from his family. No cause of death was provided; he was 92.

“It is with a heavy heart that the Avant/Sarandos family announce the passing of Clarence Alexander Avant,” the statement from his children, Nicole and Alexander and son-in-law Ted Sarandos. “Through his revolutionary business leadership, Clarence became affectionately known as ‘the Black Godfather’ in the worlds of music, entertainment, politics, and sports. Clarence leaves behind a loving family and a sea of friends and associates that have changed the world and will continue to change the world for generations to come.  The joy of his legacy eases the sorrow of our loss.  Clarence passed away gently at home in Los Angeles on Sunday, August 13, 2023.”

Avant’s list of accomplishments is long, broad, and varied. Initially a nightclub manager, he spent the 1960s managing the likes of Lalo Schifrin and Jimmy Smith. He went on to found two record labels, through which he gave the world Bill Withers, Sixto Rodriguez, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. He helped broker the sale of the legendary Stax Records back in the late ’60s; 30 years later, he became chairman of the board of Motown Records, and subsequently the first African-American board member at PolyGram. He launched one of the first fully black-owned radio stations, and didn’t hesitate to take stands in defense of black culture as a consultant to MGM and ABC in the 1970s. He also served as an advisor, official and otherwise, to Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama.

But it’s for his role as an industry mentor in the music business that Avant is perhaps most lauded. In addition to Jam and Lewis, figures as diverse as L.A. Reid and Babyface, Sylvia Rhone, Jheryl Busby, and Jimmy Iovine count him as a key mentor. He persuaded NFL star Jim Brown to launch an acting career. He was been an active figure in politics since the 1960s, and will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Oct. 7. As Avant’s lifelong best friend Quincy Jones once put it, “Everyone in this business has been by Clarence’s desk, if they’re smart.”

In a 2016 career-spanning interview with Variety, Avant referenced his mentor, former Louis Armstrong and Barbra Streisand manager Joe Glaser, when asked about the breadth of his ambitions. “It all goes back to something Joe Glaser taught me: aim high,” he said. “You can’t walk up the Empire State building — you’ll get tired, your knees might give out. But you can ride the elevator and walk down. You always aim up here, and walk down later if you have to.”

Avant was born February 25, 1931 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Overcoming many of the challenges hardships of segregation, he grew to prominence starting in the 1960s managing the careers of Shifrin and Smith, along with pioneering blues artist Little Willie John, singer Sarah Vaughan and jazz producer Creed Taylor; the contract he negotiated with A&M Records for the latter put him on the music industry’s map as a dealmaker. In 1968, Avant orchestrated the sale of the legendary soul powerhouse Stax Records (although the deal did not go well for the company’s founders and it went backrupt several years later).

In 1967 he married Jacqueline Gray and had two children: daughter Nicole Avant (a former U.S. Ambassador, political advisor, film producer and philanthropist, who is married to Netflix Co-CEO Ted Sarandos) and son Alex Avant, an agent, producer and actor based in Los Angeles. However, the family was struck by tragedy late in 2021 when Jacqueline was shot to death in a burglary attempt at the couple’s Los Angeles home; she was 81.

After moving to Los Angeles in the late ‘60s, Avant formed his own record company, Sussex Records, and signed legendary soul singer Bill Withers among other acts. He purchased KAGB-FM, making it the only black owned FM radio station in Los Angeles at the time. He also worked closely with such legends as Muhammad Ali, for whom he secured a variety special on ABC; NFL Hall Of Famer Jim Brown, whom he helped become a film star; and Major League Baseball home-run record-breaker Hank Aaron, for whom he negotiated the largest endorsement deal in professional sports history at the time. “Without Clarence Avant, there is no Hank Aaron,” Aaron would later say in the documentary film, “The Black Godfather.”

During the ‘80s he founded Tabu Records and released hits by the SOS Band, Alexander O’Neil and Cherrelle, among others. He also worked closely with then-budding hitmakers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — helping to connect them with Janet Jackson to produce her 1986 breakthrough “Control” album — and advised L.A. Reid and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds on the launch of LaFace Records. He also was the promoter of Michael Jackson’s first-ever solo tour, the 1988 “Bad” tour.

In 1993 Avant was named chairman of Motown Records after its sale to Polygram (both companies are now owned by Universal Music Group). He continued to operate his Interior Music Group and Avant Garde Music publishing companies until they were sold in 2018 to Universal.

He is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Lionel Richie in 2021, was awarded the Industry Icon Award at the Grammys and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“My whole career has been like this,” Avant told Variety in 2016. “People ask me, ‘how did you do all this?’ How the f— do I know? I just do things. I just like to take shots.”

Additional reporting by Andrew Barker.