Clarence Avant, one of the most influential and respected figures in Black Music’s history, has died at age 92. The famed executive “passed away gently at home” yesterday (August 13), according to a family statement given to The Los Angeles Times. “Through his revolutionary business leadership, Clarence became affectionately known as ‘The Black Godfather’ in the worlds of music, entertainment, politics, and sports,” the statement read. “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.”
He was widely regarded as a fighter for Black artists and music during his extensive life. “Clarence is the bridge from a time when there was no opportunity to a time when doors began to open,” said President Barack Obama in the 2019 documentary The Black Godfather.
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Clarence Avant, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina native went on to shape the careers of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Bill Withers, The S.O.S. Band, Cherrelle, Babyface, Alexander O’Neal and countless others. He founded Sussex Records, and later—Tabu.
From humble beginnings in the South in the 1930s and 1940s, Avant moved to Newark, New Jersey as a teen. In the 1950s, he moved across the Hudson River to New York City. At the onset of his career, he began managing Jazz clubs in the area while keeping an office job. He expanded from venues to artists. By the 1960s, Avant handled the careers of Jazz legends, including Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and Jimmy Smith. Another client, Lalo Schifrin, doubled his career as a pianist with composing for film and television.
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Through Schifrin’s film and television experiences, Clarence Avant relocated to Southern California. He built a publishing company and his first label, Sussex. The label launched with Withers’ Just As I Amand its hit “Lean On Me”—an anthem hand-selected by Avant. Sussex would also release music by Van McCoy and Dennis Coffey. Avant launched Avant Garde Broadcasting and acquired Black radio stations. He also moved to film, handling the career of NFL star-turned-actor/activist Jim Brown. During the 1970s, Avant worked with stars of sport, including Muhammad Ali and Hank Aaron, as well as politician Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Clarence Avant is often credited as a conduit between the entertainment industry and the successful election campaigns of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
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By the late ’70s, Avant launched Tabu Records—the eventual home to The S.O.S. Band, Alexander O’Neal, Cherrelle and a reunion with Lalo. Producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis worked closely with the label on their meteoric rise from musicians to super producers. Avant would also mentor Antonio “L.A.” Reid and former Tabu artist Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who transitioned similarly from musicians to moguls. When the pair founded LaFace Records, Clarence was an advisor.
In the 1990s, Avant led Motown Records for a time. In 2021, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
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Avant’s passing happened less than two years after his wife, Jacqueline Avant, was fatally shot at the longtime couple’s Beverly Hills home during a home invasion robbery. The Avants’ son, Alexander, is a veteran entertainment executive. The couple’s daughter, Nicole, is a film producer who is married to Ted Sarandos, the co-CEO and chief content officer at Netflix.