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‘Godfather of Black Music’ Clarence Avant Looks Back

The quintessential guy-behind-the-guy, Clarence Avant has spent his half-century career in the music business staying circumspectly out of the spotlight. It’s unlikely that many outside of the industry even know his name; but within it, there are hardly any who do not.

Often referred to as the “Godfather of Black Music,” Avant’s list of accomplishments is long, broad, and varied. Initially a nightclub manager, Avant spent the 1960s managing the likes of Lalo Schifrin and Jimmy Smith. He went on to found two record labels, through which he gave the world Bill Withers, Sixto Rodriguez, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. He helped broker the sale of the legendary Stax Records back in the late ’60s; 30 years later, he became chairman of the board of Motown Records, and subsequently the first African-American board member at PolyGram. He launched one of the first fully black-owned radio stations, and didn’t hesitate to take stands in defense of black culture as a consultant to MGM and ABC in the 1970s.

These and assorted other industry accomplishments line Avant’s resume, but it’s for his role as an industry mentor and an enabler for other African-Americans in the music business that Avant is perhaps most lauded. In addition to Jam and Lewis, figures as diverse as L.A. Reid and Babyface, Sylvia Rhone, Jheryl Busby, and Jimmy Iovine count him as a key mentor. He persuaded NFL star Jim Brown to launch an acting career. He’s been an active figure in politics since the 1960s, and will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Oct. 7. As Avant’s lifelong best friend Quincy Jones once put it, “Everyone in this business has been by Clarence’s desk, if they’re smart.”

Illustration by ryan melgar

Now focused on maintaining his publishing holdings with Interior Music and Avant Garde Music Publishing, the 85-year-old Avant works out of a modest office on Wilshire Boulevard. He listens to Duke Ellington while he works, and proudly brandishes an old-school flip-phone. (“They got me an iPhone 5, but I’ve never used the f—–g thing.”) Yet any doubts about the scope of his impact are dispelled by a glance around the office, in which industry awards and plaques are literally piled on the floor next to a couch, and photos of Avant with every imaginable industry and world historical figure line the tables.

Among his many photos with Bill Clinton is one taken at Avant’s home, in which Clinton is wearing a shiny leather jacket. “He came to my house for a fundraiser,” Avant remembers, “and he said, ‘Clarence, why didn’t you tell me to wear a suit?’ I said, ‘S–t, ain’t you the president?’ I like him. He cusses even better than I do.”

Glancing through the rest of his memorabilia, Avant points to a promotional poster for Michael Jackson’s 1987 “Bad” tour on the wall. “Michael’s first-ever tour without his brothers. You know who put that one together?” He taps himself on the chest, then chuckles. “Turned him down three times, too.”

***

“My whole career has been like this,” Avant says, circling his hands around randomly. “People ask me, ‘how did you do all this?’ How the f–k do I know? I just do things. I just like to take shots.”

Avant’s ascension into the sort of position where he could host presidents at his home and turn down Michael Jackson was certainly an unlikely one. Raised by a single mother in Greensboro, N.C., Avant left home at age 15, and worked at a Macy’s in New York. Barely into his 20s, Avant got his first taste of the music business when a fellow North Carolina transplant hired him as the weekend manager of a Newark, N.J., nightclub. He quickly realized he had a talent for the music business — not as a musician or a talent scout, but simply as a tough-as-nails dealmaker — and that talent soon attracted the attention of a soul singer named Little Willie John, who persuaded Avant to become his manager.

Making the rounds with Little Willie John, Avant was introduced to Joe Glaser, the white founder of Associated Booking Corp. A notorious figure in the business, Glaser had managed the likes of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and a youthful Barbra Streisand, and he took the young Avant under his wing.

“People ask me, ‘How did you do all this?’ How the f–k do I know? I just do things. I just like to take shots.”
Clarence Avant

Avant is upfront about Glaser’s colorful reputation: “You go back with Joe Glaser, he came out of Chicago, and they were all definitely connected with Al Capone and those guys at that time. That was a part of the business.” Through Glaser, Avant was introduced to the similarly notorious Hollywood lawyer and fixer Sidney Korshak, about whom he has several anecdotes not fit for print. “Glaser knew everybody,” Avant says. “He had offices in New York, Dallas, London, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. He controlled everything that went on in the lounges in Vegas — and I mean everything. That’s all I’m gonna tell you about that.”

But Glaser nonetheless taught him a wealth of lessons about the business, introduced him to a veritable who’s-who in the entertainment industry, and helped make him feel comfortable as one of the few black figures within some very segregated slices of society.

“Mr. Glaser would have me go with him to these dog shows,” Avant remembers. “And you’ve got to imagine I was the only black person at the goddamn dog show. He also had these 16 seats behind the visiting dugout at Yankee Stadium, and whenever he’d take me I would try to walk to the back row, and he’d grab me and say, ‘Goddamn it, sit your ass up here with me.’” Glaser even helped Avant buy a home in Beverly Hills, making him one of two black homeowners in the neighborhood at the time.

However, it took a good deal of convincing to get Avant to move to L.A., where Glaser wanted him to manage the Argentine pianist Schifrin. “I remember telling him, ‘What am I gonna do with Lalo Schifrin? He’s a white guy.’ Joe said, ‘What the f–k are you talking about — you can sell anything.’”

Avant helped secure Schifrin a foothold as a key jazz figure and TV composer — he wrote the famous theme to “Mission: Impossible” — and began to make a name for himself as an iron-willed negotiator. Hollywood power player Lew Wasserman even tried to recruit Avant as an agent, but he demurred.

“My lawyer at the time said, ‘Are you crazy? Take the job! You’ve got a wife and a baby!’ But I just didn’t want to be an agent. Can you imagine me wearing a f——g tie every day? I’m like a ninth-grader, I can’t hardly spell my name, let alone write a f—–g report.”

Nonetheless, Avant began to realize how effective his talents for high-stakes negotiations could be. In the late 1960s, he was managing a jazz producer named Creed Taylor, who had just signed a three-year deal with Verve Records for $35,000 per year. Talking with Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert at A&M Records, Avant learned that they had wanted to sign Taylor. Avant said it could still be arranged.

“Herb said, ‘But Clarence, he just signed a contract ….’ And I said, ‘So what? You can get him.’ Did I have a clue? No. But they asked me what I was looking for, and I said we wanted $150,000 a year — remember, he was making $35,000. Jerry said, ‘Clarence, you are sick. You’re out of your f—–g mind.’ It took me nine months [of negotiations], but eventually I got Creed $150,000, times three.

Hard Bargains: Avant credits his mentor Joe Glaser for teaching him the ins and outs of negotiating. <span style=”font:helvetica neue, arial, san-serif;color:#969696;text-transform:uppercase;font-size:11px;”Courtesy of Clarence Avant

“It all goes back to something Joe Glaser taught me: aim high. 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.

“Glaser taught me how to think. He wasn’t an educated man, but he was brilliant.”

***

As his clout grew, Avant launched an abortive attempt to found a label, Venture Records, with former Motown A&R head Mickey Stevenson. The Venture venture fizzled, but he finally succeeded in 1969 when he created Sussex Records. (The label’s name was a portmanteau of “success” and “sex”: “Because what else is there in life? Nothing I know of.”)

Sussex’s first few signings were initially commercial disappointments. Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez languished in obscurity for decades, only to experience a belated surge in interest thanks to the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” Sussex also released the first two albums from Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, who would come to define Washington, D.C.’s go-go music scene in later years.

But then there was Bill Withers. He had been rejected by virtually every label in town, but Avant heard something in his song “Grandma’s Hands.” “Because everybody’s got a grandma,” he reasoned.

After Avant signed him, the massive success of singles “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me” turned the retiring Withers into an unlikely superstar. But Sussex nonetheless folded in the middle of the decade, as did Avant’s L.A. radio station KAGB — dubbed “The Total Black Experience in Sound.” Avant soon bounced back with new venture Tabu Records, which would notch successes with the S.O.S. Band, Cherrelle, and Alexander O’Neal. All of those acts benefited from the expertise of Avant’s new protégés, Jam and Lewis.

The two producer-songwriters had first attracted Avant’s attention thanks to their work on the S.O.S. Band’s 1983 hit, “Just Be Good to Me,” and were fielding offers from Warner Bros. Records.

“They offered them $150,000 to sign,” Avant remembers “Then it was raised to $200,000. Jimmy and Terry came to me and said they wanted to sign with me instead. They were living together in a one-bedroom condo, and Terry’s girlfriend was pregnant. I said, ‘Sign with me? I’ve got no f—–g money. You guys are nuts.’ So I said, ‘all right, I’ll give you a $25,000 advance, and any artist you produce for me, we’ll split the publishing. You want to make a deal with someone else, I’ll help make a deal for you.’ I did that for three or four years.”

Avant, who doesn’t claim any particular insight into how to make a hit himself, gave Jam and Lewis complete autonomy. “One day, Jimmy and Terry told me they found a guy for me by the name of Alexander O’Neal. So I said, ‘OK.’ They were like, ‘Well, don’t you want to meet him?’ I was like, ‘For what? You guys write the songs, you’re the producers, I’m not.’ I trusted them. I never met Alexander O’Neal until he came to California to do press, when the LP was already printed.

“I don’t try to produce records. But sometimes, you just know.”
Clarence Avant

“I don’t try to produce records. But sometimes you just know. I actually didn’t like Cherrelle in the beginning, and Terry kept saying, ‘I’m telling you, she’s got something.’ Then they came with a song, and all I saw was just the title, ‘I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On.’ So I said, all right, sign Cherrelle.”

Which is not to say that Avant’s instincts didn’t sometimes steer him wrong. In fact, he’s positively eager to discuss his lapses in judgment. After Venture Records dissolved, Avant was gathering the resources to launch Sussex when he was approached by Max Palevsky to invest the money in a nascent tech company called Intel. Avant started the label instead — “man, the only chips I knew about were the ones inside a cookie” — and Intel became a multibillion-dollar company.

In the beginning of the 1980s, Avant even attempted to start his own oil company, which was to import petroleum from Nigeria. Thanks to U.N. ambassador (and former Martin Luther King associate) Andrew Young, Avant was able to secure an audience with Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo, only to offend him by addressing him informally and forgetting his name. Years later, Young came to him with another potential investment.

“I could have invested in Tyler Perry,” Avant says. “Andrew Young called me up one day, and said, ‘I got this young guy, Clarence, he’s trying to raise money for a film ….’ So I looked at his stuff, and then I said, ‘Andy, this f—–g guy ain’t got a chance in west hell.’

“I saw him recently,” Avant continues. “We were out Boa on Sunset for dinner, me and my wife. As we were getting ready to leave, I told the waiter to bring me the bill. The waiter said, ‘your bill’s taken care of.’ I said, ‘what, who took care of my bill?’ He points to the other end of the restaurant, and it was Tyler Perry. I waved. I told the waiter,  ‘All right, tell him I’ll be back tomorrow night.’”

Avant likes to claim that the only time he ever had a proper job was during his time at Motown, and his tenure there was certainly eventful. Appointed by PolyGram topper Alain Levy after the conglomerate bought out the storied label, Avant was named chairman of the Motown board and specifically charged with protecting the venerable Motown legacy, a task that Avant took seriously enough to sometimes clash with the rest of the board. Avant was also characteristically pugnacious when Levy hired Andre Harrell, the hotshot founder of Uptown Records and, perhaps most famously, the mentor of Sean Combs, as the new Motown president.

“Andre and I didn’t get along, “ Avant says. Pointing to a framed record from boy band 98 Degrees up on the wall, he recalls, “Andre wanted to send these white boys to Harlem to try to make ’em sound black. I was like, ‘You’re outta your f—–g mind.’

“One time, Andre and I got into an argument and I took a swing at him,” Avant says. “He and I are friends now, because I don’t want to stay mad at anybody. But I did swing at the motherf—-r.”

***

In addition to his pioneering place as a label exec and manager, Avant was also one of the first black entertainment figures to become a power player in political fundraising. Engaged with politics ever since the murder of Emmett Till, Avant was active as a fundraiser for various civil-rights causes in the 1960s. In this case, he had more than one reason for staying behind the scenes. “I did not march,” he says, “because if someone had hit me I would have hit ’em back, and then I’d be dead.”

He organized a concert rally for Young’s first congressional campaign; made a then-enormous $26,000 donation to the campaign for Tom Bradley, L.A.’s first black mayor; and was appointed to the California Board of Education by Jerry Brown back in the 1970s. “Can you imagine me on the Board of Education?” Avant chuckles.

Power Player: Avant has long been an active figure in political fundraising, particularly for President Clinton. REUTERS/Chip East/Newscom

Also in the ’70s, Avant helped raise nearly a million dollars for Jesse Jackson’s 1972 Operation Push Expo, which featured a massive live music lineup later featured in 1973’s documentary “Save the Children.” As a consultant to ABC in the 1970s, he takes credit for blocking Dick Clark’s black music-themed TV show, “Soul Unlimited,” reasoning that since the network had passed on Don Cornelius’ now iconic “Soul Train,” it would be an insult to greenlight a competing black music show run by a white man.

He’s been an active fundraiser for Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama, even though he expressed the same reservations about the latter that he once had for Tyler Perry. “Back in 2007 I told Barack, ‘You don’t have a chance in west hell of becoming president.’ Don’t think he hasn’t rubbed it in.” And Avant’s apples haven’t fallen far from the tree: his daughter Nicole spent two years as the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas, and his son Alex works in film. (Avant and his wife, Jackie, will celebrate 50 years of marriage next year.)

But so many of Avant’s biggest contributions were even further behind the scenes, serving as the connective tissue between the establishment and promising upstarts, making key introductions, doling out advice, reading contracts. His role as consigliere is one he’s tried to downscale in recent years, however: “When people call me up now, I always say no,” he says. “I don’t wanna meet with you, I don’t wanna talk to you, I don’t wanna give you any advice. I stopped doing that three or four years ago. I just don’t want to do it anymore, man. I’m 85 years old.”

Which isn’t to say he can’t still be roused. Several years ago, Avant recalls speaking with a particularly high-powered music industry figure, who complained that his teenage son refused to go to college. Avant set up a meeting with the boy, and channeling his blunt-spoken old mentor Glaser, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“I met with him,” Avant says, “I sat him down and said, ‘Look motherf—–r, you are going to college. Now get the f–k out of my office.’ That was it. He just finished school this year. Graduated early.”

 

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