They were the force that gave Black music guidance, expression and an outlet to the world
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Along with Berry Gordy, the Motown master, the ABC of career building in Black music and entertainment are Avant, Busby, Cornelius: Clarence Avant, Jheryl Busby and Don Cornelius; and in addition, Robert “Bob” Johnson completes the circle of geniuses. When Gordy retired from Motown, he turned it over to Avant and Busby. Cornelius stayed at the helm of Soul Train for decades and so did Johnson with Black Entertainment Television (BET). During the reign of the institutions that were led by these men, African American artists had “homes” to go to in order to start their careers, nurture their budding careers and give meaning to the Black musical and/or artistic experience.
BERRY GORDY–Every minute of every day somewhere in the world a Motown song is played and Berry Gordy gets the credit; that is his impact on the world of music–not just the Black music, but music in general. He founded Motown Record Corporation in 1959/60, and captivated the music world with the artists he groomed, and the music that they created. When he retired from Motown, he left a musical legacy second to none. Gordy had the unique gift for identifying and bringing together musical talent, which made Motown a major national, and indeed international, player in the music world. He primarily promoted African American artists; he skillfully managed the totality of their artistic skills: dress, choreography, public image, etc. The results were some of the biggest names in the music world including the Commodores, the Four Tops, the Jackson 5, the Miracles, the Temptations, Ashford & Simpson, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, just to name a few. And though most of the Motown artists were African Americans, their music had mass crossover appeal–it appealed to people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, ages, and from all walks of life.
However, Gordy did not stop there; in 1972, he moved his operation from Detroit, Michigan to Hollywood, California, and right in the middle of the movie capital. His success with music in Motown was duplicated on the big screen in Hollywood. Gordy’s first movie was a biography of Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues; and he chose one of his successful Motown stars to lead the cast: Diana Ross, formerly one of the Supremes. Gordy’s pick made movie history: in her first starring role, Ross was nominated for an Academy Award as best actress. The film also introduced Billy Dee Williams, as a leading man, to the public. In addition, the record, which debuted about the same time as the film, was one of Motown’s biggest and best sellers, at the time. Gordy followed with another Ross film, Mahogany, which he also directed. In 1978, he produced his biggest epic, The Wiz and though it was not a huge commercial success, it paraded an array of Black talent including, Ross, Jackson, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne, Nipsey Russell and Ted Ross. Then Gordy took on a martial arts film, The Last Dragon; in it, he introduced another newcomer, Vanity, a singer with super star, Prince.
During the 1980s, there were many competing factors in the record industry marketplace that caused Motown to lose some of its “musical” magic and although it continued to produce major hits by renown artists like the Jacksons, Rick James, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, the record company was no longer the major force it had been previously. In 1988, Gordy sold his interests in Motown Records for a reported $61 million and later on, most of his interests in Jobete Publishing, the publishing arm of Motown. In addition to being the founder of the Motown Record Company as well as many of its subsidiaries, his career included record producer, film producer and television producer.
In 1994, Gordy penned his autobiography, “To Be Loved”.
CLARENCE AVANT–To understand the personality of Clarence Avant and his service to others, one has to listen to what his peers say about him. “When I sold Motown Records, I was pleased to know that Clarence ended up being the new chairman,” said Berry Gordy, “I knew that Clarence had the ability to take it where it needed to go.”
“If you see Clarence doing business with 80 gorillas, please help the gorillas,” says Quincy Jones, “But when it comes to friendship, Clarence Avant stands alone, because there is no finer human being on this planet. The only problem is that he doesn’t say what he is thinking.”
“Clarence Avant became my first and only entertainment industry mentor and advisor, almost since the day I brought the production of Soul Train to Los Angeles from Chicago, in 1971,” said Don Cornelius, “It’s been like having a personal professor and guardian at one’s disposal, at all times. Clarence Avant truly is the Godfather to all of us who know him.”
And when former President Bill Clinton opened his presidential library in Arkansas, Avant was among the invited guests. He is truly the Godfather …. not only to those in the music and entertainment industry, but also to presidents, politicians, heads of state and businessmen and women.
Described as a humble acorn from North Carolina, Avant grew up to become a mighty oak tree and along the way he was able to pioneer the way for giants like, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones and Bill Withers, and in today’s generation, he has represented “Babyface” Edmonds, Johnny Gill, L.A. Reid, Lionel Richie, New Edition, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Stevie Wonder and many others. Avant was one of the first Blacks to own an FM radio station. He founded Sussex Records (a hybrid of ‘success’ and ‘sex’) that showcased artists including Withers, Willie Bobo, Dennis Coffey and the Presidents.
After, Sussex folded in 1975, Avant founded Tabu Records and with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, he showcased the SOS Band, Alexander O’Neal and Cherelle; he also did a record with pianist, Lalo Schifrin, of Mission Impossible fame. Now semi-retired, Avant is president of his own publishing companies including Avante Garde Music and Interior Music Corporation, and recently became involved in Internet technology via Network Foundation Technologies.
In addition to Avant’s work in the entertainment, business and political worlds, he has made entertainment into a business, and has made a business out of entertainment. Besides being on numerous boards in business, he is also a committed humanitarian and a philanthropist. Avant has given his time, talent and energy to several community-based organizations including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Pepsi-Cola African American Advisory Board, the Urban League and the Brotherhood Crusade, where he also served as the chairman of the board.
In 2003, Avant received an honorary doctorate from Morehouse College at its Founder’s Day Convocation and was featured prominently on the cover of Billboard magazine, for his birthday, February 2006. During that time the following statement was used to aptly illustrate the quality of his service to others:
“It’s the ‘quality’ and not the ‘quantity’ of a man’s life that demonstrates his service while in transition on earth. This quality can be measured by the outpouring of well-wishers on his behalf when he celebrates the anniversary of his birth.”
JHERYL BUSBY–When the Brotherhood Crusade honored Jheryl Busby, he was dubbed the music master, and that he was. He led a revival of Motown Records as president and chief executive of the company from 1988 to 1995, while Clarence Avant was the chairman.
After growing up in South Los Angeles and attending Fremont High School and Long Beach State College, Busby’s exposure to the music industry was at Stax where he was eventually named the head of its West Coast operation. That was followed with promotional work for A&M Records and Casablanca Records. At A&M, he worked with Jeffrey Osborne and Atlantic Starr, and signed up Janet Jackson; at Casablanca Records, he worked with Donna Summer, Cher and Parliament. Meanwhile his resume and mobility in the recording industry was continuously moving upwards.
In 1984, Busby became vice president of the Black division at MCA Records, a unit still in its infancy. He worked with acts including Patti LaBelle, Jody Watley, Bobby Brown and New Edition. Under his skilled management, that division was ranked at the top in sales of albums for years and he was elevated to be president of the Black music division.
According to published reports, when Berry Gordy sold Motown Records, he stipulated that 20% of the firm be retained by African-American investors and Busby became a part of that largesse. He moved to Motown Records in 1988 and re-ignited the Motown magic with s stable of youthful artists including Another Bad Creation, Boyz II Men, Johnny Gill and Queen Latifah. Busby even brought back Diana Ross to the label–after she left for RCA Records earlier–and retained artists such as Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. He extended the Motown label with licensing of the Motown CafÃ© in Las Vegas.
After Motown, Busby moved to DreamWorks Records as head of urban music in 1998. His primary focus there was to develop the company’s image in urban music and entertainment. There, one of the company’s senior executive said of Busby, “He’s here because of his experience and because of the respect he enjoys throughout the music industry. The best and the brightest urban artists will be attracted to Dreamworks for any reasons, but without question, one of the most significant will be Jheryl Busby.”
Then he formed Busby Holdings, a company engage in artist and executive management, consulting and other businesses. Busby partnered with Janet Jackson and Magic Johnson to become a major shareholder in Founders National Bank, and served on the bank’s board of directors.
Busby also faced serious challenges relative to his health in his final years. With the support of Dr. Bill Releford, he was able to overcome diabetes and became a spokesman for the African American Chapter of the American Diabetes Association. Dr. Releford, in congratulating Busby on him being honored said, “Your support of the African American Chapter of the American Diabetes Asscoiation has fueled our mission to educate those at risk about the potential devastating effects of diabetes. Many lives will be saved because of your commitment.”
Busby died on November 4, 2008 at 59 of an accidental drowning while he was preparing to go to the polls to vote for Barack Obama.
DON CORNELIUS–He was born Donald C. Cornelius and became a household name throughout America as the creator and host of Soul Train, the nationally syndicated dance and music franchise show that gave many African Americans a forum to display their talents to the world. He hosted the show from 1971 to 1993. Not only did Cornelius bring many African-American musical artists to a larger audience, he also gave his audience the ultimate in audience participation: they danced, performed and sang along with the guest artists as they appeared.
As the producer and single host of the popular show, Cornelius, while he hosted Soul Train, was also known for his catch phrase that he used to end the show: “I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!” It was a show made for African Americans by African Americans and it made Cornelius a television icon. However, he gave credit to American Bandstand’s creator: “Almost all of what I learned about mounting and hosting a dance show I learned from Dick Clark.” When American Bandstand went off the air, Soul Train was still going strong.
Prior to his Soul Train days, Cornelius worked as a a disc jockey and substituted for on- air personalities in the radio news department. Switching to television was a natural; it was inevitable. He began as a sports anchor and the host of A Black’s View of the News on WCIU; and while on the periphery of the television business, he developed a pilot for Soul Train.
Soul Train premiered in 1970 and quickly zoomed to the top–the reason: there was no show like it for Blacks by Blacks. It attracted a young African American audience since it aired on Saturday mornings. Schools were out; young Black children were at home glued to the television. It quickly gained crossover appeal and soon everyone was looking at Soul Train. It started in Chicago and immediately went to stations in Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. The show featured teenagers exclusively; they danced vigorously to the latest soul and R&B music, and what was so intriguing, the songs/music/entertainment was always live.
The show featured top Black artists–established and newcomers–including Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, Lou Rawls, and Aretha Franklin, and with the advent of rap and hip-hop, Soul Train had introduced new artists to the world. It has not always showcased Black artists with R&B and soul sounds; many White artists have performed on the show, and so too have jazz, reggae and calypso artists.
In 1987, Cornelius started the Soul Train Music Awards. Dionne Warwick and Luther Vandross served as hosts of the first ceremony, which honored Stevie Wonder with the Heritage Award for outstanding career achievements. Whitney Houston, LL Cool J, and Run DMC were among the night’s performers. Over the years, other music stars have appeared on the show, including Michael Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Usher, and Ciara, and more awards were also added later.
Cornelius sold Soul Train in 2008.
ROBERT “BOB” JOHNSON–the name Bob Johnson is synonymous with Black Entertainment Television (BET) and though he had many bumps in the road, along the way, Johnson turned a loan of $15,000 and a once-a-week two-hour show, into a full fledged 24/7 operation and was the first African American Company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1980 there was no Black television network exclusively for Blacks. Sensing this, Johnson took what many thought to be a risky gamble and he turned his vision into a sure bet–BET. Though hopes were high, there were many critics and detractors. Some of the network programs were thought to be degrading and insulting to Black people. Once Johnson was asked about the substance of BET programming content and he replied, “The E in BET is not for education, it is for entertainment.”
Today, it also infamously faces many harsh criticisms and accusations from the Black community. The likes of filmmaker Spike Lee and cartoonist Aaron McGruder have spoken out against BET’s programming. Countless others have also protested the network’s portrayal of Blacks and, specifically, its often negative portrayal of Black women. And others have asked rhetorically, ‘Has BET Reached Its Potential?’
In fact, co-founder Sheila Johnson Crump (Johnson’s ex-wife) has said, “I don’t watch it. I suggest to my kids that they don’t watch it.” She too had become disenchanted with the network’s programming, expressing that this was not the network’s original vision. The BET of yesterday was associated with many positive shows and programs such as Teen Summit, but then the video revolution reared its, sometimes ugly, head.
Beyond the obvious gratification Blacks have gained from some of the BET’s image, there is the direct impact on hundred of Black men and women who have been afforded the opportunities to do meaningful work on the highly competitive network level. Johnson’s entrepreneurial skills and his ability to shape the images seen by Blacks are often left to the imagination, speculation and intelligent conversation.
As a role model for success, Johnson’s global vision for BET or at least capturing a sizeable chunk of the African market was tied to provide a vehicle of expression for Black people worldwide. At one point he said, “I think BET could be global …” He saw BET producing more quality shows that identify with Black Africa and Black America. But that did not come to pass because he sold BET.
BET is said to have reached more than 65 million U.S. homes. In 2002, Johnson took the company private, buying back all of its publicly traded stock. The following year Johnson sold BET for $3 billion making him the richest Black person in the United States until surrendering the title to Oprah Winfrey until his ex-wife, Sheila Johnson, claimed half of his billions in divorce. Johnson continued to be the company’s chairman and CEO for six years. Then in 2005, Johnson turned over the titles of President and Chief Operating Officer of BET to Debra L. Lee, a former BET vice president.
While BET can now boast of a BET UK and availability in Canada and other parts of the world, much has changed at the network that prevents its potential strong global status. Black Entertainment Television, as of 2003, is ironically no longer Black-owned but owned by media conglomerate Viacom. Viacom’s ownership has sparked problems with the network’s audience, but issues with BET had long been brewing.
The Fathers of Black Music and Entertainment have pioneered the way for other Blacks including Russell Simmons, Suzanne de Passe, Sean “Puffy” Combs and Jermaine Dupre.