Clarence Avant, whose talent as a manager, mentor and deal-maker earned him the nickname ‘The Godfather of Black Music’, has died aged 92.
A former head of Motown, he worked with everyone from Bill Withers to Michael Jackson and founded one of America’s first Black-owned radio stations.
Avant died at home in Los Angeles on Sunday, his family said in a statement.
It comes 20 months after his wife, Jacqueline, was shot and killed by an intruder in their Beverly Hills home.
“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,” said the family.
“The joy of his legacy eases the sorrow of our loss.”
Avant’s list of accomplishments was long and varied. A former nightclub manager, his reputation as a tough negotiator attracted the attention of soul singer Little Willie John, who asked him to become his manager.
That brought him to the attention of entertainment industry veteran Joe Glaser, who managed the likes of Louis Armstrong and Barbra Streisand.
Glaser took Avant under his wing, handing him some clients – including Mission: Impossible composer Lalo Schifrin – and encouraging him how to close deals.
“Joe Glaser taught me [to] aim high,” he told Variety Magazine in 2016. “You can’t walk up the Empire State building – you’ll get tired, your knees might give out. But you can ride the elevator and walk down. You always aim up here, and walk down later if you have to.”
Before long, he’d negotiated a six-figure deal for jazz producer Creed Taylor at A&M Records, despite the fact he was already contracted to another label.
Avant went on to manage Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Hubbard and Kim Weston – who duetted with Marvin Gaye on It Takes Two.
He also founded two record labels, Sussex and Tabu, and used the former to launch the career of Bill Withers.
A former aircraft mechanic, Withers had been rejected by virtually every other record company in America – but Avant heard something in his laid-back, ruminative style and steered songs like Ain’t No Sunshine and Lean On Me to global success.
The executive also discovered and signed Sugarman singer Sixto Rodriguez, whose records flopped in the 1970s but became cult classics before his rediscovery through the Oscar-winning documentary Searching For Sugarman in 2012.
In the 1980s, Tabu Records scored hits with the S.O.S. Band, Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal while launching the careers of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as a songwriting team.
They would go on to score 16 US number-one singles, including Usher’s U Remind Me, George Michael’s Monkey and Janet Jackson tracks Together Again and That’s The Way Love Goes.
In 1989, Avant also represented songwriters LA Reid and Babyface as they launched LaFace Records – a joint venture with Arista Records that set stars like Toni Braxton, TLC, Outkast and Pink on the road to fame.
He was also the promoter of Michael Jackson’s “Bad tour” in 1987, which earned $125m/£99m ($336m/£266m in 2023 figures) worldwide.
Avant was named Motown chairman in 1993, overseeing a period of success for artists including Boyz II Men, Johnny Gill and Shanice.
Among his more colourful escapades, he sabotaged a TV programme that was planned as a rival to Soul Train; brokered peace amongst warring rights holders for an E.T. tie-in album; and arranged safe passage for P Diddy in the aftermath of the Notorious B.I.G.’s murder.
Outside of music, he helped American football player Jim Brown develop a career in acting and advised several US presidents, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
“The guy’s a rock in every way,” Clinton once commented. “His advice, per word, is worth more than anyone I ever dealt with.”
Even so, many people found it hard to pinpoint exactly what Avant did.
“What he’s done is a very unusual story,” said Bill Withers. “He puts people together, and they do what they do. How do you put together a life from knowing people?”
He preferred to remain behind the scenes, remaining humble and hard-working despite his many accolades – including being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2021.
“Clarence is our deal-making Renaissance man. Our pope. Our rebel. Our consigliere,” Epic Records’ CEO Sylvia Rhone told Billboard in 2006. “He’s been a great mentor… creating a world of opportunity for others to follow.”
“Everyone in this business has been by Clarence’s desk if they’re smart,” added his lifelong friend Quincy Jones. “He gets things done but doesn’t beat his chest or look for credit.”
Avant is survived by his daughter, Nicole Avant, a former US ambassador to the Bahamas and the wife of Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos; and his son, Alexander.
His wife Jacqueline was a prominent philanthropist who had dedicated her life to helping low-income neighbourhoods. She was killed in December 2021 by a man who had broken into the family home.
The intruder, Aariel Maynor, plead guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 190 years life in prison.
Tributes to Clarence poured in after news of his death was confirmed on Monday.
Bill and Hillary Clinton, the former US president and secretary of state, said in a joint statement they were “saddened by the passing of our friend.”
“It was impossible to spend time with him and not come away feeling more positive and wanting to follow his example.”
Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation, added: “Clarence Avant isn’t just the ‘Godfather Of Black Music’, he is our cultural Godfather.
“Throughout his life, he burst through doors and tore down ceilings, changing lives and providing opportunities for generations.
“A true pioneer, a mentor and a champion, Clarence Avant is and always will be a giant among us.”