NEW YORK — Clarence Avant, the discreet executive, entrepreneur, facilitator and consultant who helped launch or lead the careers of Quincy Jones, Bill Withers, and many more, and who went on to become known as the “Black Godfather” of music and beyond, has died. He was 92 years old.
Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021, Avant died at his Los Angeles home on Sunday, according to a family statement released Monday.
Avant’s achievements have been both public and behind the scenes as a title in the credits or a name behind the names. Born in an isolated hospital in North Carolina, he became a man of lasting and far-reaching influence, in part by heeding two advice from his former mentor, music executive Joe Glaser: Never reveal how much you know and ask. for as much money as possible, “without stuttering.”
Sometimes referred to as the “Godfather of Black Music”, he entered the 1950s as a manager with clients such as singers Sarah Vaughan and Little Willie John and composer Lalo Schifrin, who wrote the theme “Mission: Impossible.” In the 1970s, he was one of the first bosses of Black-owned radio stations and headed Motown in the 1990s after founder Berry Gordy Jr. sold the company.
Also, artists like Withers, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis founded SOS Band and, decades later, record labels like Sussex (two Avant passions – a mix of success and sex) and Taboo, with an unknown singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriquez. He rose to fame with his Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugarman”. (Rodriquez died last week).
Other jobs were quieter. Avant brokered the sale of Stax Records to Gulf and Western in 1968 after being hired by Stax executive Al Bell as a bridge between the entertainment and business industries. He raised money for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, helped Michael Jackson organize his first solo tour, and mentored Narada Michael Walden, LA Reid and Babyface and other young fans.
Quincy Jones liked to say, “Everyone in this business, if they’re smart, is at Clarence’s desk.”
“Clarence has left behind a loving family and a sea of friends and partners who have changed the world and will continue to do so for generations to come. “The joy of his legacy eases the pain of our loss,” said Avant’s son Alex, daughter Nicole, and his wife, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, in a statement.
Avant’s influence extended to sports. He helped Jim Brown transition from football to acting and produced a television special for Muhammad Ali. With baseball veteran Henry Aaron on the verge of overtaking Babe Ruth as the game’s home run champion in 1974, Avant secured Aaron the kind of lucrative trade deals that were often hard to come by for black athletes; Coca Cola.
Aaron would later say that everything he’s become into The Undefeated was “because of the Clarence Avant.”
Avant met then-model Jacqueline Gray at an Ebony Fashion Show in the mid-1960s and married her in 1967. They had two children: music producer-executive Alexander Devore and Nicole Avant, former US ambassador to the Bahamas, with Sarandos, a major fundraiser for Obama. Alongside the Rock Hall induction, her awards included two honorary Grammys, an NAACP Image Award, and a BET entrepreneurial award.
In 2021, Jacqueline Avant was murdered in their Beverly Hills home, and her death was mourned by Bill Clinton and Magic Johnson, among others. Nicole Avant would thank her mother, a leading philanthropist, for instilling in Clarence Avant and other family members “the love, passion, and importance of the arts, culture, and entertainment.”
Born in 1931, Clarence Avant spent his early years as one of eight children raised by a single mother in Greensboro, North Carolina, dropping out of high school to move north. A friend from North Carolina helped him get a job managing a lounge in Newark, New Jersey, and he soon got to know Glaser, whose clients ranged from Louis Armstrong to Barbra Streisand, let alone Al Capone. The Avant, through Glaser, found itself where Blacks were rarely allowed.
“Mr. Avant told Variety in 2016, Glaser would want me to go to these dog shows with him. He also had these 16 seats in the back of the Yankee Stadium guest shelter, and whenever he took me with him, I would try to walk to the back row and he would grab me and say, ‘Damn. ‘, he’d say, ‘sit your ass here.’
Avant became particularly close with Jones, the bond between them formed through a missed record deal. It was the early 1960s, and Jones was vice president at Mercury Records, one of the industry’s few Black executives. Avant represented jazz musician Jimmy Smith, and had heard that Mercury had recently signed Dizzy Gillespie for $100,000. The Avant aimed much higher for Smith, close to half a million.
“Do you drink Kool-Aid?” Jones recalled saying to Avant, who later negotiated with Verve Records.
“He went and got the deal,” he told Billboard in 2006.
As Avant rose in the entertainment industry, it became more politically active. He was an early supporter of Los Angeles’ first Black mayor, Tom Bradley, and executive produced “Save the Children,” a 1973 documentary about Pastor Jesse Jackson’s concert fundraiser for “Operation PUSH.” Three years ago, he called her when she learned that civil rights leader Andrew Young was running for Congress in Georgia.
Young later told CNN, “‘Are you running for Congress in Georgia?’ he said. “‘If you’re crazy enough to run away, I’m crazy enough to help you,’ he said.”
The Avant, whom Young had never met, offered to bring Isaac Hayes and other performers for a benefit and arrange for it to be held at the baseball stadium in Atlanta.
Young had forgotten their conversation a month later, when signs advertising the show appeared around town.
“We had about 30,000 people in the pouring rain,” Young said. “And he never sent us an invoice.”