Clarence Avant, who earned the honorific of “the Godfather of Black Music” for his lifelong support of Black artistry, has died, his family confirmed. “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,” reads a statement from the family. He was 92.
Avant grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, and relocated to New York at age 15 in order to find work. He got an early start as a dealmaker in the music industry a few years later when he started working as a weekend manager at a nightclub in Newark, New Jersey. From that entry, Avant began managing Sarah Vaughan, R&B singer Little Willie John, and pianist Lalo Schifrin, who recorded the Mission Impossible theme.
Avant’s networking and his reputation for doggedly pursuing favorable deals for his artists established him as a formidable player in the industry, and, at the encouragement of his mentor, Joe Glaser, he moved to Los Angeles. Variety quoted Quincy Jones, who befriended Avant in the late 1960s, as saying, “Everyone in this business has been by Clarence’s desk, if they’re smart.”
In 1969, Avant launched Sussex Records, which became an early home for Bill Withers. Sussex also signed Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, the enigmatic singer-songwriter who would have a late-career revival from the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Avant maintained a strong foothold in the entertainment industry through his management work, other record-label efforts, and through KAGB-FM, a Los Angeles radio station focused on music by Black artists.
By the mid-1980s, Avant had identified another set of up-and-comers: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, whom Avant enlisted as a production and songwriting team for new talent. The same decade, Avant served as the promoter for Michael Jackson’s massive worldwide tour for Bad, claiming he’d rejected Jackson three times before finally agreeing to do it.
Avant was appointed to the role of chairman of the board of Motown Records in 1993, during which time the label was under the Polygram umbrella. He continued to manage his publishing catalogs until 2018 when he sold them to Universal Music Group.
Throughout his life, Avant used his stature in the entertainment industry to support civil rights advocacy and, in later years, Democratic presidential candidates. After receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2016, Avant received the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Ahmet Ertegun Award in 2021, presented to him by Lionel Richie. He was the subject of a 2019 Netflix documentary titled The Black Godfather.