Clarence Avant, ‘Godfather of Black music’, dies aged 92

<span>Photograph: John Salangsang/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: John Salangsang/Shutterstock

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.”

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.

Related: The Black Godfather: the untold story of the man holding up Hollywood

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.”

Though not a household name, Avant was a large presence behind the scenes from the movie business to music to politics. “One of the things he understands is there are different kinds of power. There’s the power that needs the spotlight but there’s also the power that comes from being behind the scenes,” said Barack Obama in The Black Godfather. Obama credits Avant with getting him a prime-time slot for the 2004 Democratic convention, which boosted his political profile..

Born on 25 February 1931, 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.

<span class="element-image__caption">Dedication of the new Frank Sinatra Hall<br>Mandatory Credit: Photo by Bei/Shutterstock (5140326a) Quincy Jones and Clarence Avant Dedication of the new Frank Sinatra Hall 11/18/02 Los Angeles, CA Quincy Jones and Clarence Avant USC Dedication of the new Frank Sinatra Hall at Norris Theatre Complex. Photo by: Alex Berliner®Berliner Studio/BEImages</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Bei/Shutterstock</span>

He also began strategizing careers for Black celebrities and artists, including NFL star Jim Brown, whom he convinced to try his hand at acting, becoming a 70s action hero. He brokered an endorsement deal for baseball star Hank Aaron with Coca-Cola on the brink of his record-breaking 715th home run, and persuaded ABC to drop plans for a dance show that would have competed with Soul Train.

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.

Avant’s wife of 54 years, the philanthropist Jacqueline Avant, was shot and killed at age 81 during a break-in of their Beverly Hills home in December 2021. They are both survived by their son, Alexander, a talent rep and producer, and daughter, Nicole, the former US ambassador to the Bahamas and the wife of Netflix co-chief Ted Sarandos.

Such figures as Bill Clinton, Jay-Z, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and more posted tributes in the hours after Avant’s death was announced.

“Clarence Avant isn’t just the ‘Godfather Of Black Music,’ he is our cultural Godfather,” Roc Nation wrote in a collective statement, alongside photos of Avant with founder and owner Jay-Z. “Throughout his life, he burst through doors and tore down ceilings, changing lives and providing opportunities for generations. A true pioneer, a mentor and a champion, Clarence Avant is and always will be a giant among us.”

Avant was “a legend in the music industry, was the go-to guy for many of us in the music industry including #BerryGordy of Motown, #AlBell of Stax Records, and a countless list of others. He helped promote their careers and expand their businesses,” Jackson wrote on Twitter.

“Hillary and I are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend Clarence Avant, whose legendary career brought artists and their music to millions of people,” Bill Clinton said in a statement posted to Twitter. “He also used his success to open doors of opportunity to new generations of entrepreneurs and promoters. He was skillful, savvy, warm, and wise. It was impossible to spend time with him and not come away feeling more positive and wanting to follow his example. We just loved him.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, wrote: “The Godfather” has left us. This man was singularly responsible for helping so many Black artists get paid their worth.”

“Clarence Avant was truly one of a kind. His passing is a great loss of someone who is irreplaceable,” said record mogul Clive Davis in a statement to Variety. “Clarance’s extraordinary contribution to music and the barriers he broke throughout his career are unrivaled. He was the mentor to all Black executives in the music industry for decades, providing invaluable guidance and support while always standing up for equal rights. Clarence was humane and fair and inspired love and respect from all who knew him. I personally loved him and will miss him forever.”

“I think in the present we SAY that achievements & reward$ are what will make us happy,” Questlove wrote in a lengthy tribute on Instagram. “But man if I can impact like 1/10th of the lives Clarence Avant did then my life on this plane wasn’t in vain.”

“A human so impactful that the impacted started impacting future impactors. This is what life is about,” he added. “An exemplary life. Rest in power and thank you to Clarence Avant.”