'Godfather of Black Music' Has Died

Clarence Avant was 92
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 14, 2023 1:57 PM CDT
'Godfather of Black Music' Dead at 92
Jacqueline Avant and Clarence Avant appear at the 11th Annual AAFCA Awards in Los Angeles on Jan. 22, 2020.   (Photo by Mark Von Holden Invision/AP, File)

Clarence Avant, the judicious manager, entrepreneur, facilitator, and adviser known as the "Godfather of Black Music" who helped launch or guide the careers of Quincy Jones, Bill Withers, and many others, has died. He was 92. Avant, inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles, according to a family statement released Monday morning. Avant's achievements were both public and behind the scenes, as a name in the credits, or a name behind the names, the AP reports. Born in a segregated hospital in North Carolina, he became a man of lasting and wide-ranging influence, in part by minding two pieces of advice from an early mentor, the music manager Joe Glaser: Never let on how much you know, and ask for as much money as possible, "without stuttering."

He broke in as a manager in the 1950s, with such clients as singers Sarah Vaughan and Little Willie John and composer Lalo Schifrin, who wrote the theme to Mission: Impossible. In the 1970s he was an early patron of Black-owned radio stations and, in the 1990s, headed Motown after founder Berry Gordy Jr. sold the company. He also started such labels as Sussex (a hybrid of two Avant passions—success and sex) and Tabu, with artists including Withers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the SOS Band, and an obscure singer-songwriter, Sixto Rodriquez, who decades later became famous through the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugarman. (Rodriguez died last week.)

Other work took place more quietly. Avant brokered the sale of Stax Records to Gulf and Western in 1968, after being recruited by Stax executive Al Bell as a bridge between the entertainment and business industries. He raised money for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, helped Michael Jackson organize his first solo tour, and advised Narada Michael Walden, LA Reid, and Babyface, and other younger admirers. "Everyone in this business has been by Clarence's desk, if they're smart," Quincy Jones liked to say of him. Avant's influence extended to sports. He helped running back Jim Brown transition from football to acting and produced a primetime television special for Muhammad Ali.

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Besides his Rock Hall induction, his honors included two honorary Grammys, an NAACP Image Award, and a BET entrepreneur award. Avant met Jacqueline Gray, a model at the time, at an Ebony Fashion Fair in mid-1960s and married her in 1967. In 2021, Jacqueline Avant was murdered in their Beverly Hills home. They had two children: Music producer-manager Alexander Devore and Nicole Avant, the former US ambassador to the Bahamas. (More obituary stories.)

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