When Mr. Avant began working as a music manager in the 1960s, representing artists including pianist-composer Lalo Schifrin and jazz organist Jimmy Smith, the industry was dominated by White agents and executives who scoffed at the Black newcomer in their midst. Mr. Avant, a South Carolina native who had dropped out of high school at age 16, was unabashed — and often profane — about his humble background. “Can you imagine me wearing a tie every day? I’m like a ninth-grader,” he once said with an expletive. “I can’t hardly spell my name, let alone write a report.”
Yet with backing from the powerful talent manager Joe Glaser, an early mentor, he became a music-industry kingmaker, founding multiple record labels and rising in the 1990s to chair one of the country’s most storied music companies, Motown. He helped open the industry’s doors to Black artists and executives while serving as a mentor or adviser to figures including Snoop Dogg, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Whitney Houston, Jimmy Iovine, L.A. Reid and Pharrell Williams.
“Everyone in this business has been by Clarence’s desk, if they’re smart,” said his friend Quincy Jones, the Grammy-winning musician, producer and orchestrator, in a 2006 interview with Billboard magazine.
Inducting Mr. Avant into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021, singer-songwriter Lionel Richie described him as “the perfect marriage between street sense and common sense,” adding: “What he did for us, 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.”
Through his Los Angeles-based label Sussex Records, Mr. Avant discovered multiple ’70s artists, including the Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who became a folk hero in apartheid-era South Africa; and former Navy aircraft mechanic Bill Withers, who recorded the pop hits “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” When the label folded after a few years, Mr. Avant founded another company, Tabu, that helped launched the careers of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, an R&B songwriting duo that found crossover success through their work with Janet Jackson.
Mr. Avant was not musical — his own taste tended toward jazz — although he had a knack for identifying talent. As he told it, he signed Withers on the strength of his song “Grandma’s Hands,” reasoning that it had a mass appeal because “everybody’s got a grandma.” He was also a gifted negotiator: He said that when he learned A&M Records wanted to recruit jazz producer Creed Taylor, who had just signed a deal with Verve for $35,000 a year, he told A&M that they could get Taylor for $150,000 — and then spent nine months negotiating a contract that earned Taylor “$150,000 times three.”
For decades, Mr. Avant maintained a relatively low profile, although celebrities and other show-business figures knew where to find him.
“I kept hearing about this guy Clarence Avant, but no one seemed to know what his actual official title was,” NFL star Jim Brown recalled in an interview for “The Black Godfather,” a 2019 Netflix documentary directed by Reginald Hudlin and produced by Mr. Avant’s daughter, Nicole Avant.
Mr. Avant persuaded Brown to launch his acting career and later helped Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron secure major endorsements, just as the ballplayer was preparing to break Babe Ruth’s career home runs record in 1974. As Aaron told it, he wouldn’t be who he was “if it were not for Clarence Avant,” who nailed down an endorsement deal from Coca-Cola, according to the sports website Andscape (formerly the Undefeated), by walking into the company president’s office and pointedly noting that Blacks, not just Whites, drank Coke.
By the early 1970s, Mr. Avant was raising money for civil rights causes and Democratic political candidates, including his friend Andrew Young in Georgia. He went on to serve as a fundraiser and informal adviser to President Bill Clinton, who said that Mr. Avant offered him crucial reassurance “when the Republicans were trying to run me out of town,” and Barack Obama, who credited Mr. Avant with securing him a slot as keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when the future president was just a little-known state senator from Illinois.
Three years later, Mr. Avant recalled, he told Obama: “You don’t have a chance in west hell of becoming president.” He was happy to be proved wrong, saying in the documentary that while he had made some hit records, he was more interested in helping African Americans advance through culture, business and politics.
“My job, so far as I’m concerned, is to move us forward, period,” he said.
The oldest of eight children, Clarence Alexander Avant was born in Climax, N.C., about 10 miles south of Greensboro, on Feb. 25, 1931. He grew up in poverty, picking cotton to bring in extra money, and he never really knew his father. His stepfather was physically abusive, according to Mr. Avant, who said that he was driven by repeated beatings to put rat poison in his stepfather’s food.
When a younger sibling revealed what had happened and foiled the plot, Mr. Avant left home, moving in with an aunt in suburban Summit, N.J. He got a job as a stock clerk at Macy’s, and by his early 20s he was working as a manager at a nightclub in Newark. He soon caught the attention of R&B singer Little Willie John, who hired him as a manager, and Glaser, who was purported to have mob connections in Chicago, and who represented musicians including Louis Armstrong.
Mr. Avant said that Glaser took him under his wing, persuading the younger manager to move to California, where he became one of only a few African Americans living in Beverly Hills at the time, and to represent Schifrin, who was perhaps best known for composing the theme to the “Mission: Impossible” television series.
“I remember telling him, ‘What am I going do with Lalo Schifrin? He’s a White guy.’ Joe said, ‘What … are you talking about — you can sell anything,’” Mr. Avant told Variety in 2016. Schifrin went on to score movies including “Cool Hand Luke” and “Bullitt,” and helped Mr. Avant grow his reputation in Los Angeles, where he launched a short-lived label, Venture Records, with former Motown A&R chief William “Mickey” Stevenson.
In 1967, he married Jacqueline Gray, a former hospital technician and model for Ebony magazine’s Fashion Fair fundraising event. They had a son, Alex Avant, an agent, producer and actor, in addition to their daughter Nicole, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas during the Obama administration and is married to Ted Sarandos, the co-chief executive of Netflix.
Jacqueline Avant was fatally shot in December 2021 during an attempted robbery at their home in Beverly Hills.
Mr. Avant, who is survived by his children and a sister, was credited with helping to negotiate the 1968 sale of Stax Records to the conglomerate Gulf and Western. The next year, he founded Sussex Records, which he said he named after a portmanteau for success and sex, “because what else is there in life?”
The label released hits by artists including Dennis Coffey (“Scorpio”) and the Gallery (“Nice to Be With You”), but in recent years it came under scrutiny for royalties that may have been withheld from another Sussex singer, Rodriguez, whose albums initially bombed in the United States but found a devoted audience in South Africa.
Interviewed for an Oscar-winning 2012 documentary about the musician, “Searching for Sugar Man,” Mr. Avant was dismissive when asked why Rodriguez never received a royalty check for his South African record sales. “You think it’s something I’m going to worry about, a 1970 contract? If you do, you’re out of your mind,” he said. Mr. Avant later told the New York Times, “I don’t know who the South Africans were paying, and I don’t know who had my foreign rights.” (Rodriguez died Aug. 8 at 81.)
Mr. Avant’s business career seemed on the verge of collapsing in the mid-1970s, when Sussex folded and another one of his holdings, the Inglewood radio station KAGB-FM, filed for bankruptcy. Mr. Avant had purchased the station a few years earlier and promoted it as one of the nation’s few Black-owned radio stations. He recovered with help from wealthy friends, according to “Black Godfather,” and later admitted to his daughter that he had been “arrogant” in dismissing warnings about the station’s finances.
He found greater success in the 1980s, when his label Tabu released albums by artists including the S.O.S. Band, Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle, and when he promoted Michael Jackson’s first solo tour for the album “Bad.” The tour grossed a reported $125 million in ticket sales, or more than $340 million in today’s money.
Mr. Avant was named chairman of Motown Records in 1993, after the soul and pop label was sold to PolyGram. Four years later, he became the first Black member of Polygram’s international management board, helping to shape the corporate culture of the Dutch-owned conglomerate, which was then considered the world’s largest record company. He stepped down as Motown’s chairman in 1999, as the label was restructured and absorbed into Universal Music Group.
“If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” he said in the Netflix documentary, looking back on his career. “Life is about one thing — numbers — nothing else. What did Tina Turner say? ‘What’s love got to do with it?’ Not a … thing, man. That’s why I tell people, ‘Life begins with a number and ends with a number.’”
POST AUTHOR: Harrison Smith