Clarence Avant, Influential Music Exec Known as ‘The Black Godfather,’ Dead at 92

Clarence Avant, the veteran music and entertainment executive known as the “Black Godfather” who was hailed for his influence and guidance by Quincy Jones, Pharrell Williams, Snoop Dogg, Whitney Houston, and more, died at home in Los Angeles on Sunday. He was 92.

Avant’s death was announced Monday through a statement shared by his family. “It is with a heavy heart that the Avant/Sarandos family announce the passing of Clarence Alexander Avant,” the statement read. “Through his revolutionary business leadership, Clarence became affectionately known as ‘The Black Godfather’ in the worlds of music, entertainment, politics, and sports.” No cause of death was revealed.

“He’s the perennial godfather of our business,” Quincy Jones told Billboard in 2006. “Everyone in our business has been by Clarence’s desk, if they’re smart.” In the same article, he affectionately called Avant, “Mr. True.”

Avant was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021, receiving the Ahmet Ertegun Award. “There’s no way possible you can talk about Clarence Avant in four minutes,” Lionel Richie told the Rock Hall audience, referring to how long he had to give his induction speech. Instead, he listed the qualities that made Avant a success: “He’s a teacher. He’s a master communicator. He’s the perfect marriage between street sense and common sense. And what he did for us, and what I mean by us is the sons and daughters of the Afro-American community, he was the one that brought us to some understanding of what the music business was all about.”

But Avant was not born into the music business; he had to figure it out himself. Avant was born in Climax, North Carolina on Feb. 25, 1931. He told interviewers that he didn’t have a relationship with his father growing up, so he adopted his mother’s maiden name, Avant, as his surname. He did not graduate high school, instead moving to New York City as a teenager and working at Macy’s. He also worked for a law directory in Newark. He got his start in the music industry while working at a club called Teddy P’s Lounge, where he met blues artist Little Willie John who liked Avant so much that he asked him to manage him.

Avant’s presence in the music industry expanded throughout the 1950s, as he took on clients including Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Smith, and composer Lalo Schifrin. Early in his career, the executive was mentored by longtime Louis Armstrong manager Joe Glaser. Avant first met Jones, who was the first Black man to hold a VP job at a record label (Mercury), while managing Smith. Where other jazz artists were getting $100,000 deals, Avant asked for $450,000 for Smith, and the audacious number impressed Jones. Avant eventually got Smith signed to Verve Records for a large sum. “He went and got the deal,” Jones later recalled. “I respected him for that.”

Avant pushed the boundaries of what Black executives could accomplish across industries still deeply plagued with racism. He became a powerhouse at Venture and Sussex Records, where he signed Bill Withers, Dennis Coffey, and the Gallery but also helmed a broadcast company and produced the Paramount Pictures film Save the Children, released in 1973. Two years later, he founded Tabu Records, which was home to hitmakers like Kool and the Gang, the SOS Band, and Alexander O’Neal. He also purchased the Los Angeles area radio stations KAGB and KTYM.

In later years, he worked as a consultant with Motown’s Jheryl Busby and several notable producers, including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, L.A. Reid, Babyface, and Narada Michael Walden. Others who worked with Avant in his lifetime include Jimmy Iovine, Barbra Streisand, Kenny Gamble, and Walter Yetnikoff. In the late Eighties, he promoted Michael Jackson’s first solo tour, in support of Bad, grossing a reported $125 million.

“He’s been there for everybody,” Jones told Black Enterprise in 1991, “and if he’d helped himself as much as he’s helped everyone else along the way, he’d be a billionaire by now.”

In 1993, Motown appointed Avant chairman, a post he held for five years. He helped restructure the label before moving to its parent company, PolyGram Holding, where he became the business’ first Black board member.

Outside of music, Avant served as a delegate to the Dominican Republic under the Carter administration and helped campaign for President Bill Clinton. He was also a member of former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young’s Trade Mission to the African Nations and supported both Operation Push and the NAACP. Billboard reported in 2006 that Avant remained active, serving on the Pepsi Cola African-American Advisory Board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

In addition to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Avant received an honorary doctorate from Morehouse College, the Heroes Award from the Los Angeles chapter of the Recording Academy, and the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2016, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’.

“Here is a guy who forsakes no one,” Lewis told Billboard in 2006. “He’s done for his family and his career and helped everyone else at the same time. There’s not a person I know who doesn’t respect him.”

Avant married Jacqueline “Jackie” Gray in 1967, and the couple had two children, a daughter Nicole, who is married to Netflix exec Ted Sarandos, and a son Alexander. In 2021, a burglar shot Jackie and a bodyguard in the Avants’ home. Jackie died because of the shooting at age 81. The burglar pleaded guilty to the crime.

In 2019, ahead of his appearance in the Netflix documentary The Black Godfather, Pharrell Williams paid tribute to the figurehead, sharing in a statement: “Clarence Avant connects us all through his incredible impact since before I was born up until now. He’s the godfather to so many of us – and not just African Americans, most of the industry.”


In their statement on his death, his family Nicole Avant, Ted Sarandos, and Alex Avant continued: “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.”

Throughout his career, Avant fought for the recognition and fair compensation of Black creators. “Even though Berry Gordy changed white power thinking because he was able to run a major record label, we’re still not part of their overall game plan,” Avant told Black Enterprise in 1991. “Black music is responsible for [about] 20 percent of the revenues in the record industry … but we sure as hell aren’t pulling in 20 percent of the dollars or enjoying 20 percent of the power.”

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