Clarence Avant, Former Motown Chairman and ‘Godfather of Black Music,’ Dies at 92

Clarence Avant, whose decades of trailblazing work as an artist manager, mentor, executive and record label owner earned him the title of “Godfather of Black Music,” died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 92. “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,” his family said in a statement. “The joy of his legacy eases the sorrow of our loss.”

As a New York-based manager early on in his career, the Greensboro, North Carolina native worked with Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Hubbard, Little Willie John, Jimmy Smith and producer Creed Taylor, among others. He discovered and signed singer Bill Withers, whose breakthrough single, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” won the Grammy Award for best R&B song. In the ’70s, Avant founded KAGB-FM (Avant Garde Broadcasting), one of the first Black-owned radio stations in the U.S.

He also launched two record companies, Sussex and Tabu, cultivating rosters that included Withers, Dennis Coffey, the S.O.S. Band, Wadsworth Mansion, The Gallery and The Presidents, among others.

Avant’s connection with the S.O.S. Band sparked a introduction to emerging songwriting/production duo Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Avant played an instrumental role in the pair’s success (as well as that of another hit-making duo, Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds). He was also the promoter of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” tour, Jackson’s first ever solo world tour.

He was named Motown chairman in 1993 and four years later became the first African-American to serve on the International Management Board for PolyGram.

Clarence Avant, Ethiopia Habtemariam and Quincy Jones at the Salute to Black Music Awards Gala.

Clarence Avant, Ethiopia Habtemariam and Quincy Jones at the Salute to Black Music Awards Gala.

Ian Foxx

His legendary friendship with Quincy Jones spanned decades, and he notably mentored such music industry luminaries as Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Sony Music Publishing chairman/CEO Jon Platt, among others.

“There will never be enough words to express how much Clarence Avant meant to me,” said Jones in a statement. “He was my dearest friend, my brother, my confidant, my mentor, and my counsel for more than 60 years. Clarence always told me the truth in every aspect of my life, even when he knew I didn’t want to hear it…and in this business we all know what a rarity that is.  There will never be another like Clarence Avant, and I will miss his presence every day.”

“Clarence’s legacy is etched in the indelible marks he left on the music industry and in his tireless efforts for the rights of us all,” added Reid in a statement. “Yet, what truly sets him apart was his unwavering compassion and his ability to connect with all people on a personal level. He was the embodiment of sincerity, a rarity in a world often marked by pretense. His absence will leave a void that cannot be easily filled.”

Added Platt, “Clarence was an ally and mentor to me and many others who followed the trail he blazed. As one of the leading architects of the Black entertainment business, he expanded opportunities for executives of color and supported us along our journey. Clarence Avant positively impacted my life the moment he walked into it, filling a void that I did not know existed. Clarence is the closest person to a father that I ever had.”

Avant ran his own companies, Interior Music Group and Avant Garde Music, until they were sold in 2018 to Universal Music Group.

Avant was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021 and in 2019, was honored by the Recording Academy with the Grammy Salute to Industry Icons award. Over the decades he also received a Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award, an NAACP Image Awards Hall Of Fame Award, a BET Honors Entrepreneur Award, and induction into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2008, the Recording Academy honored Avant with its Trustees Award. In June of this year, he was feted by the Jazz Foundation of America.

Numerous other music industry heavy-hitters paid tribute to Avant.

“With the passing of Clarence Avant the world has lost an icon, his family has lost their patriarch, and I lost a dear friend,” said Berry Gordy in a statement. “Clarence earned his reputation as the Black Godfather for good reason. People, especially musicians and artists, went to him when they were in trouble and one way or another, he would fix the problem. …Our Black Godfather may be gone – but he will never be forgotten.”

Irving Azoff also weighed in on the loss of Avant on Monday. “We have lost the godfather,” he said in a statement. “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.”

Involved in the social, political and sporting arenas, his relationships range from the presidential (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) to the entrepreneurial (Oprah Winfrey) to the boxing ring (Muhammad Ali, for whom he secured a variety special on ABC).

“Hillary and I are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend Clarence Avant, whose legendary career brought artists and their music to millions of people,” said Clinton in a social media post. “He also used his success to open doors of opportunity to new generations of entrepreneurs and promoters. He was skillful, savvy, warm, and wise. It was impossible to spend time with him and not come away feeling more positive and wanting to follow his example. We just loved him.”

Avant was the subject of the Netflix documentary The Black Godfather (2019). The film chronicles Avant’s colorful, barrier-breaking career and enduring legacy through interviews with an industry who’s who. Among those paying tribute are Snoop Dogg, Sean “Diddy” Combs, hit songwriter Diane Warren, Lionel Richie, David Geffen, music/film producer Suzanne de Passe, Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge, actress Cicely Tyson and Jamie Foxx.

Clarence Avant, Jackie Avant

Clarence Avant and wife Jackie Avant attend BET’s Pre-Grammy Brunch at The Four Seasons Hotel on Feb. 12, 2017 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Earl Gibson III

Avant married Jacqueline Gray in 1967 and the pair moved from New York to Beverly Hills. Their daughter, Nicole Avant, is a film producer (including The Black Godfather) and former U.S. Ambassador and is married to Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos; Clarence and Jacqueline’s son, Alex Avant, is a talent representative for a major Los Angeles-based agency. Celebrating his dad’s 90th birthday in 2021, Alex Avant paid tribute on social media.

“Your generosity is rare and should be studied. Your ability to personally find positive solutions for thousands of people including myself when things look dark is magical,” he wrote. “I’ve been exposed to some of the most fascinating experiences life can offer as a kid. Coming from Greensboro North Carolina (Climax) who would have known that you would quietly have your hands in some of the most profound moments in entertainment, politics and sports history.”

In December of 2021, the Avant family was hit with tragedy when Jacqueline Avant was shot and killed during a attempted burglary of the couples’ Beverly Hills home. The philanthropist had been working on building a center to help children in South Los Angeles, the Jacqueline Avant Children & Family Center, which opened earlier this year.

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