Receive free Clarence Avant updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Clarence Avant news every morning.
Even the people who Clarence Avant helped were at times unsure about what he did.
“He put people together,” offered Bill Withers, who Avant signed to his Sussex label when the singer had been refused by countless other record companies.
Avant, who has died aged 92, was hailed as the Godfather of Black Music and, simply, as the Black Godfather. The talk-show host Tavis Smiley called him a consigliere, and it is certainly true that much of his work was done behind the scenes. He was not a household name — except in the households that counted, from Beverly Hills to the White House.
The oldest of eight children, Avant was born into a life of poverty in Climax, North Carolina. His mother worked as a domestic servant, and his father did not live with the family. At 16, when the young Clarence’s plot to murder his abusive stepfather with rat poison was discovered, he moved to New Jersey.
For a while, Avant worked as a Macy’s stock clerk. In his early twenties, he became manager of a lounge bar in Newark owned by bandleader Teddy Powell. He was taken under the wing of Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s longtime manager, and became the agent for many jazz and R&B musicians, including Little Willie John and Sarah Vaughan. When he became the manager for Lalo Schifrin, he moved west to be in the deal-flow for Hollywood soundtrack work (Schifrin’s credits range from Mission: Impossible to Dirty Harry.)
Avant was known as a mentor — to Quincy Jones, Whitney Houston, Sean Combs, and to contemporary musicians too. Janelle Monáe called him “an icon and nurturer in our industry”, adding that she will “always be grateful for the advice and love he gave me and Wondaland [her film and music production community] when I started my career as an artist”.
The music executive was involved behind the scenes of the civil rights movement as a fundraiser, organising a concert for Andrew Young’s first congressional race in Georgia in 1970 and supporting Tom Bradley’s campaign to become the first black mayor of Los Angeles. He offered informal advice to presidents, including George HW Bush but mostly on the Democratic side. Bill Clinton described his counsel as “per word, probably worth more than just about anybody I ever dealt with”. Barack Obama credited Avant with securing him the speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, which set him up to run for the presidency.
As an agent, Avant was tenacious and ambitious, brokering the sale of Stax Records for $4.3mn and pulling off the coup of luring the producer Creed Taylor from his contract with Verve Records to A&M. He also worked with sports stars, agreeing a well-timed sponsorship deal for the baseball player Hank Aaron with Coca-Cola and helping Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown become a Hollywood action hero.
“He always wanted whatever a person was due, to get it, especially money-wise and especially for young black entertainers,” said singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson.
One exception to this, arguably, was Sixto Rodriguez: when the singer’s records, which had flopped in the US, became massive hits in South Africa, none of the money found its way back to him. Asked about this in the 2012 documentary Searching For Sugar Man, Avant dismissed the question. (More recently, Rodriguez — who died five days before Avant — had reached a settlement that paid him back royalties.)
Not all of Avant’s businesses were successful. Sussex Records, home to Bill Withers and Rodriguez, went under in 1975, weighted down by debts to the Internal Revenue Service. Avant Garde Broadcasting, which ran Los Angeles radio station KAGB-FM, went bankrupt later that year. But Avant bounced back with Tabu Records, working with the production team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. He also promoted Michael Jackson’s Bad tour. In the 1990s, he became chair of Motown Records.
The businessman was enthusiastically profane (he paid tribute to Clinton who “cusses even better than I do”) and could be hot tempered: during his time at Motown, he had a physical altercation with the label’s president, Andre Harrell.
His final decade was marked by great tragedy, when his wife of 54 years, Jacqueline, was killed by an intruder at their Beverly Hills home in 2021.
Ultimately, the music titan’s interest was in making connections and deals. “Life”, he said, “begins with a number and ends with a number . . . It’s all about numbers and nothing else.” In money and friendship terms, he ended his life with much higher numbers than when it began.