Clarence Avant, lovingly known as “The Black Godfather,” was called home to rest on August 13, at the age of 92. One of Black music’s most extraordinary executives, Avant was renowned for his business acumen, industry expertise, philanthropic efforts, and social justice advocacy.
A statement released by his children, Nicole and Alexander, and son-in-law, Ted Sarandos, said, in part, “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.
“Top artists and executives like Quincy Jones, Jay Z, Whitney Houston, Pharell Williams, Lionel Richie, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Sean Combs, L.A. Reid, Suzanne de Passe, Kenny ‘Baby Face’ Edmonds, Jon Platt, Irving Azoff, Snoop Dogg, Reginald Hudland, Benny Medina, and Queen Latifah all credit Avant for his inspiration and guidance,” the statement said.
Avant’s passing motivated recording artists, elected officials, community leaders and more to commend his influential impact in the entertainment, sports, and political arenas. Tributes to Avant’s legacy were expressed by former President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, Mayor Karen Bass, Motown founder Berry Gordy, legendary musician Quincy Jones, NBA Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Jones, and many others.
Accolades were also extended by close friends and colleagues in the battle for civil rights including Danny J. Bakewell, Sr, executive publisher of Bakewell Media; Charisse Bremond-Weaver, president/CEO of Los Angeles Brotherhood Crusade where Avant served as Board Chairman; and Earl “Skip” Cooper II, chairman emeritus of the Black Business Association.
Before becoming the acclaimed manager, facilitator, and advisor to music legends such as Quincy Jones and Bill Withers, Avant’s life began on February 25, 1931, in the small town of Climax, North Carolina. After attending his early school years in Greensboro, North Carolina, Avant left home at age 15 and moved to New Jersey to live with his aunt and cousin. In his early 20s, he began working as a manager at Teddy P’s Lounge.
Through his work at Teddy P’s, his career was launched after he met several musicians and executives. Also, Avant became a mentee of Joseph G. “Joe” Glaser, manager of Louis Armstrong, and applied what he learned from Glaser to his career.
With the knowledge gained from Glaser, Avant soon became music manager of many artists including R&B singer Little Willie John, jazz singers Sarah Vaughn, Kim Weston, Luiz Bonfa, Wynton Kelly, Freddie Hubbard, Pat Thomas, rock and roll artists Tom Wilson, jazz producer Creed Taylor, jazz musician Jimmy Smith and Argentine, and pianist-composer Lalo Schifrin.
Avant went on to establish his own business, Avant Garde Enterprises in 1962, opening offices on the East and West coasts to accommodate the growing work of his clientele.
While in New York, Avant served as an adviser, board member, and executive of National Association of Television and Radio Announcers and was a consultant to PlayTape. In 1966, Avant went on to establish Sussex Productions, Inc., an independent record production firm featuring Johnny Nash, Terry Bryant, Billy Woods, and the Judge and the Jury.
A year later, Avant would move from Manhattan to Beverly Hills to work at Venture Records, the space for the soul acts act MGM Records Inc., where he spearheaded the first joint venture between an African American artists and major record company. After being shut down by MGM, Avant remained in Los Angeles and founded companies Sussex Records, Tabu, and Avant Garde Broadcasting and later bought the first African American-owned FM radio station in Los Angeles.
Sussex and Tabu featured many well-known artists along the likes of Bill Withers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and the S.O.S Band. In the 1990s, Avant become a patron to many Black-owned radio stations throughout Los Angeles as well as headed Motown after Berry Gordy sold the company.
Not only was Avant immersed into the music industry, but he was also a major figure in the sports industry. Avant was a main facilitator in making lucrative commercial deals and producing primetime television specials featuring sports legends like Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, and Henry “Hank” Aaron.
Clarence Avant was not only a music and entertainment mogul. He was a fierce advocate for Black people and those less fortunate. He served for over two decades as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Los Angeles Brotherhood Crusade. Under Avant’s time as Board Chairman, he and Danny J. Bakewell, Sr. built the Brotherhood Crusade into Southern California’s largest non-profit institution providing technical assistance, financial support and other services to thousands of community residents and providing millions of dollars in funding to local community organizations and programs.
Avant along with his wife, Jacquie, were annual attendees at the Brotherhood Crusade’s Pioneers of Black Achievement Dinners where Avant along with his good friends, Don Cornelius and Danny Bakewell, Sr., transformed the gala into the most prestigious event in all of Black Los Angeles.
He was also a big supporter of Skip Cooper and the Los Angeles Black Business Association. Avant often lent his talent and resources to the organization to ensure that whatever endeavors the BBA hosted that it was successful and able to serve its mission of helping build and expand Black Business throughout the city.
In addition, “The Black Godfather” was always an advocate for those in need of help and fought for what’s right, even when he wasn’t trying to. No story exemplifies the honor and nobility of Clarence Avant more than the saga of Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican American folk singer signed to Avant’s Tabu Records.
Originally, Rodriguez and his music were not very popular here in the United States; however, the fight to end apartheid in South Africa was what Sixto sang about. His music became a cultural classic, selling millions of records underground in South Africa even though his music was banned by the government and illegal for citizens to own.
The account of Sixto and his music was eventually told in the documentary, “Searching for Sugarman,” which propelled the artist into a life of fame and birthed a cult following that originally eluded him. The resulting fame combined with the fight for freedom and an end to apartheid also justified Avant’s belief in Rodriguez’s star power.
The Associated Press reported another example of Avant’s skill in recognizing potential stars. AP wrote that Avant called former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young when Young was running for Congress in Georgia.
“He said, ‘In Georgia, you’re running for Congress?’” Young later told CNN. “He said, ‘Well, if you’re crazy enough to run, I’m crazy enough to help you.’” Avant, whom Young had never met, brought in Isaac Hayes and other entertainers for a benefit with 30,000 attending in the rain. Young added, “And he never sent us a bill.”
Clarence Avant also served as an adviser and worked in official and unofficial capacities for Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama.
Avant earned several commendations in the years to follow. In 2016, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 2018, received the President’s Merit Award as a Grammy Icon at the Clive Davis Pre Grammy-Gala in Los Angeles.
He was presented with the Ahmet Ertegun award in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021 alongside notable inductees such as Bill Withers and was recognized by Vice President Harris and former President Obama.
Avant was married to his late wife Jacqueline “Jacquie” Alberta Gray for more than 50 years. Cherishing his memory are his two children, Nicole, and Alexander. Nicole Avant is a former U.S. ambassador, political adviser, and film producer, and is married to Ted Sarandos of Netflix. His son, Alex Avant, is an agent, producer and actor based in Los Angeles.
Executive Editor Danny J. Bakewell, Jr., Managing Editor Cora Jackson-Fossett, Associated Press and City News Service contributed to this article.