In Memoriam: Clarence Avant [1931-2023]

Clarence Avant lived 92 years on this Earth and spent over 60 of them turning the entertainment industry on its head for the sake of quality art and Black musicians.

He consulted for television networks, founded all-Black radio stations, led record label after record label, and was a tour promotor and dealmaker whose stamp of approval stood out. His friends and colleagues over last six decades ranged from Michael Jackson and Bill Withers to Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama. Still, he was just as devoted to his time at the top of the business food chain and behind the desk as he was to his wife (Jacqueline) and children (Nicole and Alex).

At the end of 2021, Missus Jackie Avant, the decades-long partner-in-crime to Mister Avant was killed in the couple’s home in Los Angeles during an attempted robbery. They were together for 54 years. To know that they are reunited now, wherever that may be, is something we are holding onto while paying tribute to the man who was on the inside of much of the art and culture that continues to shape our lives. (Yes – to this day we are talking about his impact. The 2019 Netflix documentary co-produced by his daughter Nicole is proof of such. It’s a film that will give you chills and leave you inspired by the jazz-loving force Avant always was.)

His tongue-in-cheek title of ‘The Black Godfather’ put emphasis on his power and prestige. This was not just in the case of music either, but entertainment in all forms, as well as sports and politics. The advice he gave was fierce, to the point, and often risky. In a 2016 conversation with Variety, Avant explained that he wasn’t sure how everything snowballed so beautifully and with such command of him and his career. “People ask me, ‘How did you do all this?’ How the fuck do I know? I just do things. I just like to take shots,” he had said. And although working within the world of Motown might have put him on the map, it is as clear as day that Clarence Avant was keen on earning the respect of everyone – no matter how many strings he had to pull or profanity-laced sentences he had to expel.

We were in the audience at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony when Avant was honored. Lionel Richie introduced and inducted him into the Hall, laughing and smiling and appreciating every minute of that moment. In our recap from that event in 2021, we wrote this: “Richie’s warmth and whimsy played a vital hand in how he inducted the foul-mouthed liaison, music mogul, and friend to the stars, Mr. Clarence Avant. The almost 91-year-old entrepreneur was, and is, a character. Watching him tear-up at the podium to give his acceptance speech for the Ahmet Ertegun Award, seeing Richie hand him his handkerchief, and then proceed to crack himself and the audience up is a rollercoaster of emotions that make you question whether or not you want to have Lionel Richie as your charming wingman or Clarence Avant as your fearless grandfather. The air in the room shifted at this point, turning the excitement of fun-loving musicality and celebration into one of diligence, utmost respect, and unadulterated confidence.”

The famed music executive turned producer and advisor gave hope to the Black community in the sixties, seventies, and beyond, and although the path was not linear, the ups-and-downs of his storied life in a bustling industry added to his humanity. His notable civic engagement stemmed from his soul. Passion was always key; as was the ability to pivot as you went, learn as you go. Was Clarence Avant always ethical? Maybe not. Was Clarence Avant someone you could always count on if he was in your back pocket? Absolutely. Just ask his best friend Quincy Jones.

Rest In Peace and Power, Clarence Avant. Enjoy your ice-filled glasses of wine, your lifelong friends, and the reunion with your beloved.