He was dubbed the “Godfather of Black Music,” but the deluge of tributes for Clarence Avant from a bevy of prominent people is tantamount to ones delivered for a head of state. And to some degree, Avant, who died on August 13 in Los Angeles at 92, deserved all the acclaim as a mogul in the entertainment industry, particularly as a record producer and executive.
As has been declared on many occasions in this column, you don’t have to wait a century or so to profile a distinguished Black American, although in this case, we can hardly claim Avant is unknown and unheralded. In fact, quite the contrary: He rose from being a “roadie” for Little Willie John to the helm of Motown Records.
Avant was born on February 25, 1931, in Climax, North Carolina. Other than his attendance at a one-room schoolhouse and later as a student at James Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina, very little is known of his early years. He was a teenager when he moved to New Jersey to live with his aunt and cousin. One of his first jobs was working at a lounge owned by Teddy Powell, and it was there that he met Little Willie John, who asked him to be his road manager.
From this fortuitous meeting and subsequent employment, Avant came into contact with other performers and music notables, including William Stevenson, whom he helped to sign with MGM, thereby facilitating the merger of an artist with a major company with the incorporation of Venture Records. In effect, according to an interview with HistoryMakers, Avant the “deal maker” was born. In 1968, Al Bell enlisted his help to sell Stax Records to Gulf & Western, a deal completed for $4.5 million.
These successes set the stage for Avant to start his own record company, Sussex. The recent death of singer Rodriguez, who recorded for the company, reminded us of the less-than-successful venture. Avant’s musical passion and ambitions morphed into the quest to own a radio station. That became a reality by 1973 when he bought KAGB-FM, although it, like Sussex, closed within two years.
Tabu Records was Avant’s next endeavor, but his interest shifted to promoting performers and materialized most dramatically in 1987 when he helped put Michael Jackson’s first tour on the map—it grossed $125 million. Consequently, he was named chair of the Board of Motown Records.
Among those who praised Avant and his legacy was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who said, “Clarence Avant was a revolutionary. When people in the entertainment world were delegated to a near master/slave relationship, he broke through that wall of exploitation and made us respected business people. I can’t count the enormous amount of situations that he negotiated.”
Along with his accomplishments in the music industry, Avant also formed business alliances with major corporations, such as Pepsico to erect a bottling plant in South Africa. In 1997, he, along with Quincy Jones, was the recipient of the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award. Morehouse College presented him with an honorary doctorate in 2003; he was inducted into the NAACP Hall of Fame in 2010.
Former Presidents Clinton and Obama were among those saluting Avant, including condolences to his wife, Nicole, and their children. But Sean “Diddy” Combs summarized Avant’s remarkable career: “Clarence Avant was an irreplaceable force in the music industry. He was a mentor and a personal friend whose influence is unparalleled. His visionary approach and unwavering dedication broke barriers for Black artists, propelling them to new heights. As we honor this trailblazer, we are reminded of his enduring legacy that continues to live on, inspiring a generation of artists and shaping the industry.”