Jimmy Jam On Clarence Avant, 2021 Rock Hall Ahmet Ertegun Award Honoree

The Black Godfather & His Consiglieri:
Lester Cohen/Getty Images / The Recording Academy
– The Black Godfather & His Consiglieri:
Clarence Avant (third from left) with the great Quincy Jones, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Jacqueline Avant at the Pre-Grammy Gala and Grammy Salute to Industry Icons Honoring Clarence Avant at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on Feb. 9, 2019, in Beverly Hills.
To know of Clarence Avant’s prodigious career and the legions of lives he’s touched and bettered, is to know some of the most transformational figures of our time across so many fields. Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, Lalo Schifrin, Dizzy Gillespie, Berry Gordy, Bill Withers? Sure. Sir Lucian Grainge, Joe Smith, Irving Azoff (see Q&A here), David Geffen, Sidney Sheinberg, Jerry Moss and Lew Wasserman? Indeed. Tomica Woods-Wright, Jon Platt, Al Haymon, Don Cornelius, Andre Harrell? Check. Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, Magic Johnson, Jim Brown and Jamie Foxx? Yes. Sean “Love” Combs, Ludacris, Babyface, Snoop Dogg, and Janet Jackson? Yes. And last, but not in any way least, Jimmy Jam, he of the iconic production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, whose landmark Minneapolis Sound, wouldn’t have touched the millions across the globe, but for Clarence Avant. It’s no wonder why then Avant is the Rock Hall’s 2021 Ahmet Ertegun Award honoree. 
Pollstar: How much of your success can we attribute to Clarence?
Jimmy Jam: If you were going to name people that were instrumental in our success, the name that would be on the top of our list, musically, would be Prince. Growing up with him, playing in The Time, opening for him, and all the lessons he taught us and then ultimately him firing us, or as Terry likes to say freeing us …that was definitely a huge turning point in our musical lives. But then in our production lives post-The Time, Clarence Avant is the most pivotal person in our lives. Not only, business-wise and him being a mentor, but in a lot of the common sense we’ve had over our careers, he was instrumental in us making the right decisions early on and in every possible way. When we’re fortunate enough to receive awards, we thank God first and we thank Clarence Avant second because he is our God on earth. His importance to us can’t be overstated.
The Hotel Office:
Photo courtesy Jimmy Jam
– The Hotel Office:
Jimmy Jam (left) and Clarence Avant (right) pose at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Jimmy Jam says Avant “literally sets up in the Polo Lounge and he sets his meetings up there.”
He’s such an extraordinary person, always talking numbers, having incredible business acumen and foresight, being philanthropic and then cursing people out. When you first met this gruff but lovable guy, what did you think?   
He’s definitely lovable. By the way, when he’s cussing you out, to me, that’s the ultimate sign of love he has for you because it means he cares about you. When we met Clarence, we had done a song called “High Hopes” for The S.O.S. Band who recorded on Clarence’s label Tabu. The song was what back in the day they used to call a turntable hit, it got a lot of airplay but didn’t really sell. From that we got a meeting with Clarence Avant. 
The next time we met him, Dina Andrews, who was sort of managing us at the time and trying to help connect us with people, went in to talk to Clarence. We went in afterwards and sat in his office on Sunset Boulevard. We walked in and Clarence just said very kind of matter of fact, “What’s the story with ‘High Hopes?’” We said, “Well, Clarence, we think our version is better because we didn’t just produce it, we wrote it.” And he said, “So what’s the difference in your version?” And we said, “Well, our version has the chili sauce on it.” And he said, “The chili sauce?” And he started laughing. “I like that, the chili sauce. What’s that mean?” So we played the demo and he said, “OK, here’s the thing, I’m waiting for this guy to call me back. If he doesn’t call me back, you guys are gonna do two songs on the next S.O.S. Band album.” The guy never called back. 
Before the conversation ended, he said, “Now, about your manager.” We said, “Yeah?” And he said, “What’s your guys’ recording fee and stuff like that?” And we were like, “Oh no, we can charge less, man, we can get it done for less money or whatever.” And he looked at us and said, “Less money? You didn’t ask for enough money. You have to realize you have to fly to Atlanta to do this, there’s going to be your recording cost for the studio, there’s going to be this, and that.” He said, “Here’s what I’m going to pay you because I think this is fair.” It was like three times what she had asked and we were like, “We know business isn’t normally done like this.” And even when we went down to record the record, I remember we wanted to send him stuff we were working on, and he just said, “Oh no, I’ll just hear it when it’s done.” So it spoiled us because one, we were dealing with somebody who was fair but also someone who was giving us our creative freedom and not looking over our shoulder and just letting us create.
One of our biggest songs we had with Clarence was a song called “Just Be Good to Me,” it was the first big single. But the next song we had was “Tell Me If You Still Care.” He sent us back to Atlanta to do two songs and we just did the one. So, we said, “Clarence, I know we’re supposed to be doing two songs but we have this one that is really good and we’d rather just take our time and just finish this one.” And he’s like, “That’s fine.” He’s always been a  creative freedom type guy. And when he heard it, he loved it and it turned into a huge hit so it all worked out. Clarence’s approach to things was so different and we knew it was different even at the beginning, but the more we were in the industry, the more we realized how different it actually was. 
It’s interesting how Mr. Avant always talks about the numbers,  but he also knew it was a lot more than that, right?  
For Clarence, numbers are facts. You’re born on a number, the date, you die on a number. It’s a date. And then, your worth, it’s about knowing what you’re worth because that’s a number. The opportunities are fine, but you should be paid appropriately for 
that. Now, in between the numbers, though, is the real story, which is the care that he has, and the compassion he has. It’s interesting. There are so many lessons that he taught us.  
Like what? 
I remember, he said, “If you ever come across someone who’s talented, and they’re doing well or they have a lot of talent, but maybe their business side is messed up, or they’re having some problems, introduce them to me.” I remember running into L.A. Reid at an event. And L.A. came up to us and said, “Can you introduce us to Clarence Avant?” And what Clarence told us went to our heads and we said, “Yeah. As a matter of fact, we can.” So we went back to Clarence and said, “Hey, Clarence, there’s these guys, L.A. and Babyface.” And he laughed and said, “L.A. and Babyface? What kind of name is that?” And we were laughing. And we said, “Clarence, they’re good guys, real talented guys, but they need some help with their business and their publishing.” Clarence was like, “OK, cool. Send them over.” And the rest is history.
He also said to us something that was very important about the way to look at the big picture of our lives. And he sat down, and he asked us, “What are you guys going to be doing in seven years?” This was after we had some hit records with The S.O.S. Band, then Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle. We had a nice little roll going and it was right after we won the Grammy for Producer of the Year. It was like three years later because around ‘82 or ‘83, we met him so we’re talking ‘86, in that era. 
Kevin Mazur / Getty Images / Roc Nation
– G.O.A.T.S.
Sean “Love” Combs, fellow 2021 Rock Hall inductee Jay-Z, Clarence Avant and Jon Platt, CEO of Sony Music Publishing, attend the 2019 Roc Nation brunch on Feb. 9 in Los Angeles.
Did that Grammy include your work with Janet Jackson?
Yes, because it’s for the body of work throughout the year. So, it was Control, she was nominated for that album, also, an Album of the Year, but also for, I think, Human League, and Alex and Cherrelle and S.O.S. Band, we had like six or seven acts that we had produced that year. 
Clarence said two things after that. He said, “What are you guys going to be doing in seven years?” We said, “Making hits.” And he said, “No, no, no.” He says, “I don’t mean that.” He says, “What are you going to be doing besides that.” We’re like, “What do you mean by besides that?” He said, “Look at it like this.” He said, “Right now, you have me, you have Dick Griffey, Berry Gordy, you have a few Black executives that are basically in charge of music companies. Who’s going to be the next people?” And we were like, “Wow.” And he said, “So you need to think about that. Because who’s going to get involved on the political side of things? Who’s going to get involved in Washington to make sure that things get done in the right way for music creators?” We were like, “Huh, OK.” And he said, “Who’s going to get involved with getting on the boards of companies to help consult companies to do that?” So all of those things and we’re just kind of like, “Yeah, I don’t know.” And he said, “Those are the kinds of things you need to start thinking about.” 
Right after that he told us that he said, “Now, I want you guys to take two weeks off. You can’t go to the studio, you just have to not do anything.” And we were like, “Wow, what you’re talking about, Clarence? We got to get going, man. We got stuff…” He said, “No, no, no. Two weeks, no studio.” I remember the first week, this was before cellphones or anything, so Terry would call me every day on the phone and go, “What are you doing, man?” I’d go “Nothing, man.” “OK, cool, man. All right. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” Literally we had nothing to do. We had no life outside of music, right? After the two weeks are up we called Clarence and said, “Can we take a third week off?” He laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s great. You should go ahead and do that.” But that three-week break Clarence made us do at literally the height of all our momentum and hits, to me, it’s the reason why we’re still around now. He taught us that you have to take care of yourself and it’s not going to all fall apart. We eased our way back into it; we did Herb Alpert’s record because there was no pressure to do that and it ended up being a big hit record. That record never would have happened without Clarence stopping us, making us wait a minute and come back into it.” 
And then the cool thing about those lessons is that we were able to impart them to other people. Probably two or three years ago now, I remember having Drake come by our studio and we were having a con-
versation. And Drake was going to Dubai or somewhere for four days or whatever, and I said, “You should just take a week off or a couple of weeks off.” And he said, “No, man, I can’t. I got my album coming 
and I got whatever, whatever.” I said, “OK, well, We got advice one time that was really good and it’s like you have to look out for yourself because everybody’s going to tell you that you can’t take time off or it’s all 
going to fall apart, but maybe just take it as a time off.” I didn’t hear from him for a couple of weeks and I thought. “Wow, I know he’s back in town.” And he hit me and said, “Yeah, I ended up taking two weeks off. That was the best advice I ever got.” He said, “I’m so charged, I’m so ready to go.” 
Power Trio:
Photo by L. Busacca / WireImage for TJ Martell Foundation
– Power Trio:
Clarence Avant, President Bill Clinton and Berry Gordy attend the 2006 T.J. Martell Foundation’s 31st annual Awards Gala in New York.
What other non-music ways did he help you? 
In my life, the impactful thing for me, when he talked about being on boards and those types of things. I’ll never forget when I got asked to run for the ASCAP Board. And I said, “Well, gee, I don’t really know.” And Clarence said, in Clarence Avant language, “Motherfucker, you better get your ass in there and do that, man. They don’t let us in those rooms, man. Those are the rooms you’re trying to get in.” And I’m like, “OK, cool.” So, I ran. I ended up getting in. 
I ended up doing the ASCAP Board for a couple years, which was great. And then, from doing that, I was asked to become part of the Recording Academy Board. And once again, I called Clarence. And I said, “OK, they’re asking me to be part of this board.” And he said the same exact thing that he said before. He said, “That’s the rooms that they’re not going to let us in. If, man, you got a chance to get in that room, you got to get in that room.” I’m like, “Okay.” So, for the Recording Academy, not only did I end up getting in the room, I became the first African-American Chair of The Recording Academy, which was 50 years after it started. And that wouldn’t have happened without Clarence. 
What do you think is Clarence Avant’s legacy?
The gift of Clarence is that there will never be another Clarence in one person. But there will be a bunch of Clarences that can spread the word he taught. He did it across sports, politics, entertainment, music, there’s nobody like him. He wasn’t out there trying to be famous. He wasn’t trying to be known, and be the big man or whatever, he was just about doing things, not about being congratulated for doing things. 
There is nobody like him. If you’re in the music business, especially the Black music business, he’s touched you in some way. You may not be aware of it, but he’s touched you in some way. 

And I mean, everybody. From Berry Gordy, and the Smokey Robinsons or these days H.E.R. or Migos or Drake or whoever. In some way, Clarence has touched them. And there’s nobody that can be like that. I think we all do what we do, but Clarence is like the umbrella over all of us. 

Irving Azoff On Clarence Avant’s Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Honors