Clarence Avant, ‘The Black Godfather,’ Dies At 92

Clarence Avant

Clarence Avant, “The Black Godfather” and a 2021 inductee to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, died at home in Los Angeles Aug. 13 at age 92. 

The family made the announcement, writing: ““It is with a heavy heart that the Avant/Sarandos family announce the passing of Clarence Alexander Avant. Through his revolutionary business leadership, Clarence became affectionately known as “The Black Godfather” in the worlds of music, entertainment, politics, and sports. 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.”

Irving Azoff, co-founder of Oak View Group (Pollstar’s parent company) stated, “We have lost the Godfather. The business would look nothing like this if it weren’t for Clarence. He had the biggest heart of any of us despite him trying to hide it! What a great man.” 

Avant grew to prominence in the 1960s and far beyond, managing the careers of blues pioneer Little Willie John, film music composer Lalo Shifrin, Sarah Vaughan, jazz organist Jimmy Smith and producer Creed Taylor – for whom Avant negotiated a record-breaking deal with A&M Records and winning the notice of lifelong friend Quincy Jones. He also orchestrated the sale of legendary Stax Records, second only to Motown in terms of sales and influence.

Along with Jones, artists and executives who’ve credited Avant for inspiration and guidance include JayZ, 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.  

Avant was born Feb. 25, 1931 in Greensboro,North Carolina, and eventually moved to New York. During the ‘60s, he met and in 1967 married Jacqueline Gray, later moving to Beverly Hills, California, and starting a family. Their daughter, Nicole Avant, is a former U.S. Ambassador, political advisor, film producer and philanthropist, married to Netflix Co-CEO Ted Sarandos. Son Alex Avant is a talent representative for a major Los Angeles-based agency.

Once in Los Angeles, Avant formed his own record company, Sussex Records, and quickly signed the legendary Bill Withers and successful and diverse acts like Wadsworth Mansion, The Gallery and The Presidents. Avant purchased KAGB-FM making it the only black-owned FM radio station in Los Angeles at the time. 

He also continued to guide the careers of such figures as Muhammad Ali, for whom he secured a variety special on ABC; NFL Hall Of Famer Jim Brown for whom he orchestrated his jump from the gridiron to film to become an action star. Avant worked with baseball pioneers Jackie Robinson, for whom he helped build Freedom National Bank of Harlem, and home run record breaker Hank Aaron, for whom he negotiated the largest endorsement deal in professional sports history.

 “Without Clarence Avant, there is no Hank Aaron,” Aaron would later say in the documentary film, “The Black Godfather,” available on Netflix. 

Avant created Tabu Records in the 1980s, and had a string of hits with artists including The SOS Band, Alexander O’Neil and Cherrelle. Sussex and Tabu releases were foundational to early formation of hip-hop and heavily sampled by the pioneering DJs like DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. As an advisor, Avant was instrumental in the rise of legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis when he helped put them together with Janet Jackson to produce her breakout Control album for A&M Records and advised L.A. Reid and Kenny “Baby Face” Edmonds to create LaFace Records. Avant was the promoter of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” tour, Jackson’s first ever solo world tour.  

In 1993 Avant became the chairman of Motown Records after its sale to Polygram. Throughout Avant’s career he has also been an influence in politics, seeding the early careers of Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. While a prominent Democrat, Avant’s influence always reached across the aisle and he advised President George H.W. Bush and others. 

Avant continued to operate his  Interior Music Group and Avant Garde Music publishing companies until they were sold in 2018 to Universal Music Group. 

Avant’s influence is felt throughout the music business today as he has inspired multiple generations of artists and executives. He is inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has been awarded the Industry Icon Award at the Grammys and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

On Avant’s induction to the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Azoff said, “The guy was always thinking about what was good for his friends and good for the business and less concerned about his own personal gain. He wasn’t doing this for an alternative motive so he could make a bunch of money. He did this in music and he did it in politics. There’s few guys in my life that have impacted me and Clarence was one of them. You learn to pay back, do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. He really understood that and lived by it and did it.”