Clarence Avant, Producer, Promoter & ‘Godfather of Black music’, Dies At 92
Clarence Avant, a longtime Hollywood insider whose work as a record executive, promoter, mentor and dealmaker earned him the moniker “the Godfather of Black music”, has died at 92.
Avant, the subject of a 2019 Netflix documentary The Black Godfather, died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles, according to a statement by his family to the Hollywood Reporter.
“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 statement said. “The joy of his legacy eases the sorrow of our loss.”
Clarence Avant was a silent but mighty presence in Hollywood; his fingerprints were all over 20th-century music. He managed Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Smith, Lalo Schifrin and Freddie Hubbard, and he discovered Black folk-soul singer Bill Withers. He promoted Michael Jackson’s first solo world tour, Bad, in the 1980s; he brokered the sale of Stax Records, founded Sussex Records and took over Motown Records in 1993.
Through the years, he advised a who’s who of artists, executives, sports stars, producers and more, including Quincy Jones, David Geffen, Jay-Z, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Jim Brown, Pharrell Willians, Whitney Houston, Antonio “LA” Reid, Lionel Richie, Reginald Hudlin, Snoop Dogg, Queen Latifah and Jamie Foxx.
“He’s always told me the damn truth in all aspects of my life,” Jones said at Avant’s Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony in 2016. “He’s also been the silent architect of so many deals it would make your head spin. He gets things done but doesn’t beat his chest or look for credit.”
“He’s a teacher, he’s a master communicator, he’s the perfect marriage between street sense and common sense,” said Richie in 2021, when Avant received the Ahmet Ertegun award from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “What he did for us, the sons and daughters of the Afro-American community, he brought us some understanding of what the music business was all about.”
Born on 25 February 1931, Clarence Avant was the oldest of eight children in a poor Black family in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the segregated south. He was raised by a single mother, Gertrude, a domestic worker. He left high school at 16 and, after a failed attempt to poison his abusive stepfather, fled home to join his aunt in New Jersey. While working as a manager at a New Jersey lounge, he caught the eye of the legendary jazz manager Joe Glaser, who took him under his wing.
Avant soon partnered with rock’ n’ roll producer Tom Wilson, and moved to Los Angeles to work with Schifrin, the Argentinian TV and film composer of Mission: Impossible fame. Avant helped establish the MGM Records-backed Venture Records, the first joint venture between a Black-owned music company and a major record label. He launched Sussex Records – named for a combination of “success” and “sex”, the things Avant said everybody wants – in 1969. The label housed artists such as Withers and Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez, the subject of the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man.
His producer credits include the Douglas Turner Ward play The Reckoning for the Negro Ensemble Company in 1969, and the 1973 documentary Save the Children, featuring concert performances by Withers, Roberta Flack, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and more.
He was awarded the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement award by the NAACP in 2007, and the Recording Academy’s Trustees award for those whose careers outside of performing have made “significant contributions to music” in 2008.