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Clarence Avant: A life marked by influence far beyond music


’Godfather of Black Music’ dies at age 92

Funeral services are pending this week for Clarence Avant, a prominent figure in the music industry who was known as the “Godfather of Black Music,” who died at his Los Angeles-area home on Aug. 13 at age 92.

Avant’s influence spread beyond music impacting the worlds of sports, politics and entertainment as he worked with U.S. presidents and Hall of Fame athletes.

In a statement provided to Variety, his family said, “It is with a heavy heart that the Avant/Sarandos family announce the passing of Clarence Alexander Avant. Through his revolutionary business leadership, Clarence became affectionately known as ‘The Black Godfather’ in the worlds of music, entertainment, politics, and sports. 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. Clarence passed away gently at home in Los Angeles on Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023.

“Top artists and executives like Quincy Jones, JayZ, Whitney Houston, Pharell Williams, Lionel Richie, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Sean Combs, L.A. Reid, Suzanne de Passe, Kenny ‘Baby Face’ Edmonds, Jon Platt, Irving Azoff, Snoop Dogg, Reginald Hudlin, Benny Medina and Queen Latifah all credit Avant for his inspiration and guidance,” the family statement said.

The statement was sent on behalf of Avant’s children, Nicole and Alexander, and son-in-law Ted Sarandos, the CEO of Netflix.

In the 1960’s Avant was a nightclub manager, and the manager for Lalo Schifrin and Jimmy Smith. He founded two record labels, and helped guide the careers of Bill Withers, Sixto Rodriguez, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis.

He became the chairman of the board of Motown Records in the 1990s and was the first Black board member of PolyGram.

He launched the first fully Black-owned radio stations in Los Angeles and was a consultant to MGM and ABC in the 1970s. He was also an adviser and worked in official capacities for Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama.

Bill and Hillary Clinton issued a joint statement saying Avant “brought artists and their music to millions of people.”

“He also used his success to open doors of opportunity to new generations of entrepreneurs and promoters,” they said. “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.”

Barack and Michelle Obama called Avant “one of our favorite people.”

“He exemplified a certain level of cool and street smarts that allowed him to move confidently into worlds that nobody had prepared him for, never doubting he could figure it out,” the Obamas said in a joint statement.

“Clarence was part of a generation that served as a bridge from a time when there was very little opportunity for Black people to a time when doors began to open. He demanded the world make room, and he paved the way for the rest of us.”

Vice President Kamala Harris called Avant “a legend” who “was always focused on who he could bring to the table and who he could lift up.

“From the music industry to the civil rights movement, he brought people together so we could all move forward,” Harris said in a statement. “Clarence supported community leaders through some of the toughest moments of the civil rights movement, and helped open doors for elected officials–from those at city hall and in the halls of Congress, to the White House.

“He was generous, he was funny and he was full of heart.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom called Avant “a visionary entrepreneur and changemaker who redefined the entertainment industry and opened doors for countless Black artists and executives through his mentorship and guidance.”

“Beyond his incomparable career in the entertainment world, Avant was a passionate voice for equal rights whose wide-ranging influence made an impact on important figures in politics and sports,” Newsom said.

“Avant’s legacy carries on in the many lives he changed and the generations of aspiring talents he continues to inspire.”

Avant was credited with persuading Jim Brown to begin an acting career after a successful NFL career, and served as a mentor to music figures L.A. Reid and Baby Face, Sylvia Rhone, Jheryl Busby and Jimmy Iovine.

He was born in Greensboro, NC on Feb. 25, 1931, and moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s. He formed his own record company, Sussex Records and purchased KAGB-FM, which was the only Black-owned radio station in Los Angeles at the time.

He married his wife, Jacqueline, in 1967 and had two children, Nicole and Alex. Nicole Avant is a former U.S. ambassador, political adviser and film producer, and is married to Sarandos. Alex Avant is an agent, producer and actor based in Los Angeles.

Jacqueline Avant was shot to death in a burglary attempt at the couple’s home in Beverly Hills in December 2021. She was 81. Aariel Maynor pleaded guilty to the killing and was sentenced to a minimum of 150 years in prison in 2022.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement that Clarence Avant left a legacy “that will inspire music and culture forever.”

“Mr. Avant gave so much to Los Angeles–producing a sound that influenced generations while ceaselessly fighting for civil rights and equal treatment under the law. I had the great fortune to have been able to engage Mr. Avant in insightful and valuable conversations about the top issues that our city and nation were facing and I will always be grateful for the time we shared,” she said.

“Mr. and Mrs. Avant changed Los Angeles with their vision, their spirit and their philanthropy. My thoughts are with the Avant family and all who mourn this massive loss.”

Rep. Maxine Waters (CA-43) said this: “Clarence Avant was a brilliant pioneer in the music industry known by all as the ‘Godfather of Black Music.’ He opened the doors for many Black artists and was highly respected for his agility to negotiate contracts and change the way Hollywood dealt with young Black talent who needed a foot in the door. Clarence joins his beloved wife, Jackie Avant, who passed away Dec. 1, 2021. I, along with so many others, are going to miss both Clarence and Jackie so very much.”