Known variously as the Black Godfather, the Godfather of Black Music and the Godfather of Black Entertainment, industry legend Clarence Avant was a pioneer over some seven decades in entertainment. The manager, label and broadcast media owner, and mentor died on Aug. 13 at age 92.
The breadth of Avant’s impact cannot be overstated. For his myriad accomplishments — many of which were historic and groundbreaking — he received the Recording Academy's Trustees Award in 2008. In 2019, Avant received the GRAMMY Salute To Industry Icons Award.
"Clarence Avant will forever be remembered as a trailblazer and changemaker whose commitment to music and the community paved the way for opportunity and greater inclusion within our industry," said Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. "He fundamentally transformed the musical landscape for the better. The depth of Clarence’s legacy will last for generations."
A lengthy list of luminaries in the worlds of entertainment, music, politics and more paid tribute to Avant on social media.
(L-R) Jay-Z, Clarence Avant and Sean Combs attend 2020 Roc Nation THE BRUNCH on January 25, 2020, in Los Angeles, California | Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation
Bill Clinton tweeted, "It was impossible to spend time with Clarence Avant and not come away feeling more positive and wanting to follow his example."
The Rev. Al Sharpton called Avant "a revolutionary," adding that "When people in the entertainment world were delegated to a near master/slave relationship, he broke through that wall of exploitation and made us respected business people.
"This man was singularly responsible for helping so many Black artists get paid their worth," civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill tweeted.
Magic Johnson tweeted, "He knew how to touch every individual he met and meet them where they were in order to get them where they needed to be."
Jay-Z’s Roc Nation reflected on Avant's legacy:
Born Feb. 25, 1931, in North Carolina, Avant began his career under the tutelage of Louis Armstrong manager Joe Glaser. He would soon branch out on his own to manage artists including Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Hubbard and pioneering Black record producer Tom Wilson. Avant opened a Los Angeles office in 1964.
In 1967, Avant helped negotiate what is said to be the first joint venture between a Black artist and a major label when he mediated a deal for Motown writer-producer William "Mickey" Stevenson with MGM for the soul subsidiary Venture Records.
In 1969, Avant founded his own label, Sussex. The label’s first release was Cold Fact, the unsuccessful debut from the late Sixto Rodriguez, who would years later become the subject of the Oscar-winning doc Searching for Sugar Man. While it took 50 years for Rodriguez to get his due, such was not the case for other Sussex releases such as Dennis Coffey’s smash funky instrumental "Scorpio" and certainly not for Bill Withers, who from 1971 to 1972 had three singles go platinum or gold.
During this time, Avant also bought what became one of the first Black-owned U.S. radio stations, Los Angeles R&B outlet KTYM. Both this venture and Sussex would wind down by 1975, which led to Avant’s founding of Tabu Records.
It was at Tabu that Avant discovered the songwriting and production talents of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who had both been members of the Prince-owned band the Time. Jam and Lewis would create one of the most gravity-defying sounds of the ’80s, and Avant would eventually introduce them to Janet Jackson.
That kind of behind-the-scenes dot-connecting was the norm for Avant. He was considered an important mentor by Jam and Lewis, L.A. Reid and Babyface, industry titans Sylvia Rhone, Jheryl Busby, Jon Platt and Jimmy Iovine, and many others — including football great Jim Brown, whom Avant reportedly convinced to take up acting.
He was a political activist, especially for Black causes, and was an unofficial advisor to Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama.
He would also serve as Chairman of Motown Records and would become the first Black person to serve on the international management board for PolyGram. He was the subject of the 2019 documentary The Black Godfather.
In addition to his Recording Academy Trustees Award, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021 and is due to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Oct. 7.
There was no blueprint for Avant’s storied career. "I kept hearing about this guy Clarence Avant, but no one seemed to know what his actual official title was," Jim Brown recalled.
"My whole career has been like this," Avant once told Variety. "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."
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