Clarence Avant, Mighty Engine Behind Black Superstars, Dies at 92


Clarence Avant, a record executive who shaped the careers not only of Bill Withers, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and other Black singers, but also of politicians, actors and sports figures — exerting so much influence that a 2019 documentary about him was called simply “The Black Godfather” — died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 92.

His family announced his death in a statement.

Mr. Avant (pronounced AY-vant), born in a segregated hospital in North Carolina and educated only through the ninth grade, moved easily in the high-powered world of entertainment, helping to establish the idea that Black culture and consumers were forces to be reckoned with.

He started out managing a nightclub in Newark in the late 1950s and moved on to representing some of the artists he met there. Joe Glaser, a high-powered agent who handled Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and many other top acts, took Mr. Avant under his wing; perhaps, the documentary suggested, Mr. Glaser, who was white, thought it would be advantageous to have a Black man representing some of his Black clients.

In any case, Mr. Avant was soon handling artists including the jazz organist Jimmy Smith and traveling in rarefied circles. Not all his clients were Black; he said Mr. Glaser sent him to Los Angeles in 1964 with the Argentine pianist Lalo Schifrin, who was then working with Dizzy Gillespie, to try to get Mr. Schifrin started on a career composing for film and television. Though he knew nothing about the movie business, Mr. Avant worked his brand of magic on the West Coast: Mr. Schifrin has to date been nominated for six Oscars.

In 1960 Mr. Avant formed Sussex Records — he said the name was his combination of the two things people want more than anything else, success and sex — which lasted only about half a decade but released, among other records, Mr. Withers’s early albums.

“Clarence made some great choices musically,” Mr. Withers, who died in 2020, said in the documentary. “‘Lean on Me’” — Mr. Withers’s only Billboard No. 1 hit — “was not my choice for a single.”

Later in the 1970s Mr. Avant founded Tabu Records, and for a time in the 1990s he was chairman of Motown. He also helped Jim Brown, the football player, build an acting career and negotiated an endorsement deal for Hank Aaron, the Hall of Fame baseball player, as well as supporting the political careers of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

“One of the things he understands is, there are different kinds of power,” Mr. Obama said in the documentary. “There’s the power that needs the spotlight, but there’s also the power that comes from being behind the scenes.”

In 2013, accepting the entrepreneur award at the BET Honors, one of many he received in his career, Mr. Avant summed himself up.

“I can’t make speeches,” he told the crowd while clutching his trophy. “That’s not my life. I make deals.”

Clarence Alexander Avant was born on Feb. 25, 1931, in Greensboro, N.C., to Gertrude Avant Woods, a domestic worker. In the documentary, he said his mother was not married to his father, Phoenix Jarrell, whom he barely knew.

He grew up in Climax, N.C., in difficult circumstances and stayed in school only through ninth grade.

“We were poor,” he said in the film. “I’m talking about poor, poor, poor. We had chicken-feet soup.”

Racism was omnipresent, and the Ku Klux Klan loomed large.

“My mother would just tell us, if you hear a car coming, run and hide; lay down flat,” he said.

He grew up with a stepfather, Eddie Woods, who was abusive, and he said he left home when he was a teenager after his attempt to kill the man by putting rat poison in his food failed. He went to live with an aunt in Summit, N.J.

For a time he held a low-level job at Martindale-Hubbell, publisher of a law directory. In his 20s he started working at a Newark nightclub that featured Black musicians. That was his introduction to the entertainment business, and he proved a natural.

“I think Clarence exemplifies a certain cool,” Mr. Obama said in the documentary, “a certain level of street smarts and savvy that allowed him to move into worlds that nobody had prepared him for and say, ‘I can figure this out.’”

As his career representing entertainers began to flourish, Mr. Avant met Jacqueline Gray, a model. They married in 1967, and as the couple prospered Ms. Avant became noted for her philanthropic work.

In December 2021 a man burglarizing the Avants’ home, Aariel Maynor, shot and killed her. He pleaded guilty to multiple charges the next year and was sentenced to life in prison.

In the documentary, friends remarked on their long marriage, somewhat unusual in the entertainment world.

“They still look like they’ve got wedding cake on their feet,” the actor Jamie Foxx said, “like they just walked off a soul wedding cake.”

Mr. Avant’s daughter, Nicole Avant, said in a phone interview that after the tragedy, her father made a conscious effort to press on.

“Music was, I think, the lifesaving force for him,” she said, especially that of Ellington, Frank Sinatra and other artists from his youth. “His mood changed when the music came on.”

At about the time he was getting ready to marry Jacqueline, Mr. Avant was growing more vocal about racial matters. A 1967 article in The Pittsburgh Courier quoted a strongly worded letter he had written to the management of WLIB, a radio station in New York that was aimed at a Black audience but at the time was white-owned.

“Is your station managed by Negroes,” he wrote, “and I am not referring to Negro disc jockeys?”

“I think radio stations whose programs are supposed to appeal to the so-called Negro market,” he added, “should at least be staffed by Negro personnel.”

He was also becoming active politically. He supported the early campaigns of Andrew Young, who made an unsuccessful run for a Georgia congressional seat in 1970 and a successful one two years later. It was Mr. Young who connected Mr. Avant to Hank Aaron when he was about to break Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974.

“Clarence called me up and said, ‘Andy, do you know Hank Aaron?’” Mr. Young recalled in the documentary, which was directed by Reginald Hudlin. “I said, ‘Yeah, he lives around the corner.’ He said, ‘If he’s about to break Babe Ruth’s record, he’s supposed to make some money.’”

Mr. Avant wanted to help Mr. Aaron secure some endorsement deals.

“Will you tell him that I’m not crazy and I’m going to call him?” Mr. Avant asked Mr. Young.

“I said, ‘Well, I can’t vouch for you not being crazy,’” Mr. Young said, “‘but I’ll tell him that you’ve been very helpful to me.’”

It was fraught territory — Mr. Aaron was receiving death threats over the prospect that he would break a hallowed record set by a white player. Mr. Avant, though, according to the documentary, marched into the office of the president of Coca-Cola and told him, in unprintably blunt language, that Black people drink Coke.

Mr. Avant’s guidance helped Mr. Aaron secure a substantial deal from Coke and otherwise market himself, which fueled his later charitable endeavors.

“Henry Aaron would not be Henry Aaron if it were not for Clarence Avant,” Mr. Aaron, who died in 2021, said in the film.

Mr. Avant also helped other athletes, including Jim Brown as he transitioned from football into acting in the 1960s. Interviewed for the documentary, Mr. Brown, one of the biggest Black stars of the 1960s and ’70s, had a hard time pinning down what Mr. Avant did — not an uncommon thing among those who knew and worked with Mr. Avant.

“You have this guy called Clarence Avant that everybody’s talking about, but nobody seems to understand just what his official title was,” Mr. Brown, who died in May, said, recalling their early meetings. “I couldn’t tell you now exactly what he — was he an agent, a manager, a lawyer? — what he was.”

Mr. Avant had rocky times in the mid-1970s, when the Sussex label went bankrupt and KAGB-FM, a radio station he had bought (making it one of the first Black-owned stations in the Los Angeles area), floundered. But, he said, friends were always his most important asset, and some of them helped him get back on his feet.

Tabu Records, which Mr. Avant founded in 1975, released records by the S.O.S. Band, Cherrelle and others.

In addition to his daughter, who was a producer of “The Black Godfather,” Mr. Avant is survived by a son, Alexander, and a sister, Anne Woods.

The Avant home was always abuzz with A-list visitors. Nicole Avant recalled a day, when she was 12, that she and a friend got into trouble at school. The friend’s mother, driving Nicole home, was fuming — until she saw Harry Belafonte walking out of the Avants’ house.

“Is that Harry Belafonte?” the woman asked her.

”I said, ‘Yeah, how do you know Harry Belafonte?” — not realizing he was anyone other than a friend who would come around to visit her parents from time to time.

Ms. Avant, who served as ambassador to the Bahamas during the Obama administration, said that Mr. Belafonte and others who would gather at the Avant home were serious about breaking down racial barriers, in the entertainment world and in society in general.

“They knew that they were on a mission,” she said.

The flood of tributes offered to Mr. Avant on Monday included many from younger performers who appreciated his legacy.

“He is the ultimate example of what change looks like, what architecting change looks like, and what the success of change looks like,” the rapper and producer Pharrell said in a statement. “He stared adversity in the face in climates and conditions that weren’t welcoming to people that looked like him. But through his talent and relentless spirit in the pursuit to be the best of the best, he garnered the support and friendship of people who otherwise wouldn’t look in our direction.”

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