Clarence Avant, a record executive who shaped the careers of not only Bill Withers, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and other Black singers, but also politicians, actors, and sports figures — with such an enormous influence that a 2019 documentary about him was called simply “The Black Godfather” — died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He is 92.
His family announced his death in a statement.
Mr. Avant, born in a segregated hospital in North Carolina and educated only through the ninth grade, easily transitioned into the high-powered world of entertainment, helping to establish the idea that Black culture and Consumers are forces to be reckoned with.
He began managing a nightclub in Newark in the late 1950s and moved on to represent some of the artists he met there. Joe Glaser, a high-powered agent who handled Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and many other top acts, hired Mr. Avant under his wing; perhaps, the documentary suggested, Mr. Glaser, who is white, that it would be beneficial to have a Black man represent some of his Black clients.
In any case, Mr. Avant soon handled artists including jazz organist Jimmy Smith and traveled in rarefied circles. Not all of his clients were Black; he said Mr. Glaser sent him to Los Angeles in 1964 with the Argentine pianist Lalo Schifrin, who was then working with Dizzy Gillespie, to try to get Mr. Schifrin to a career in composing for film and television. Even though he knew nothing about the movie business, Mr. Avant his brand of magic on the West Coast: Mr. Schifrin has so far been nominated for six Oscars.
In 1960 Mr. Avant formed Sussex Records — he said the name was his combination of the two things people wanted more than anything else, success and sex — which lasted only about half a decade but released, among other record, the first albums of Mr. Withers.
“Clarence made some great choices in music,” said Mr. Withers, who died in 2020, in the documentary. “’Lean on Me’” — the Billboard No. 1 single. 1 hit by Mr. Withers — “was not my choice for a single.
Later in the 1970s, Mr. Avant founded Tabu Records, and for a time in the 1990s he ran Motown. He also helped Jim Brown, the football player, develop an acting career and negotiated an endorsement deal for Hank Aaron, the Hall of Fame baseball player, as well as supporting the political careers of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
“One of the things he understands is, there are different kinds of power,” Mr. Obama said in the documentary. “There’s power that requires the spotlight, but there’s also power that comes from being behind the scenes.”
In 2013, accepting the entrepreneur award at the BET Honors, one of the many he has received in his career, Mr. Avant summed up himself.
“I’m speechless,” he told the crowd as he held his trophy. “That’s not my life. I make deals.”
A complete obituary will appear soon.