Clarence Avant, pioneering Black entertainment executive, dies at 92

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Clarence Avant, a Black entertainment executive who left his mark on decades of culture and politics, has passed away. His death at age 92 in Los Angeles was revealed on Monday (August 14) in a statement from his family:

“Through his revolutionary business leadership,” the statement reads, “Clarence became affectionately known as ‘The Black Godfather’ in the worlds of music, entertainment, politics, and sports. 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 joy of his legacy eases the sorrow of our loss.”

Avant is survived by his children Nicole Avant, former United States ambassador to the Bahamas, and Alexander, an agent. Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos is his son-in-law. In 2021, Avant’s wife Jacqueline was shot and killed during a home invasion. The two had been married since 1967.

Born in 1931 in Climax, North Carolina, Avant moved to New Jersey in his mid-teens and became a nightclub manager. Throughout the 1960s he managed a variety of musicians including Freddie Hubbard, Kim Weston, Lalo Schifrin, and Jimmy Smith; 1968 saw Avant play a role in brokering the sale of Stax Records and founding the labels Sussex and Tabu, which signed artists like Bill Withers and Sixto Rodriguez.

As Avant’s career continued, his reputation as a reliable spotter of talent and a powerful behind-the-scenes figure grew. His involvement in politics and the burgeoning civil rights movement was intertwined with his work: Avant purchased the California radio station KTYM-FM in 1970, making the newly-renamed KAGB-FM the first Black-owned station in the country. In 1973, Avant served as the executive producer of Save The Children, a filmed concert performed at Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH in Chicago.

Known as a steadfast mentor of Black artists, politicians, and athletes, Avant helped guide the careers of producing legends Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, R&B vet Babyface, music mogul L.A. Reid, and Quincy Jones. In a 2019 interview, Pharell detailed the scope of Avant’s legacy: “I know a lot of people that he was responsible for bringing into the industry, people who have directly affected my life and given me entry into the industry… I had always just heard his name — All these people that he opened doors for talked about his immense power, his business acumen, and the energy he brought to a room.”

Pharrell’s original song “Letter To My Godfather” appears in The Black Godfather, a Netflix documentary about Avant’s life and career. The film is directed by Reginald Hudlin and features interviews with former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Vice President Kamala Harris, Clive Davis, David Geffen, and many more. In 2021, Avant was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Lionel Ritchie.

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