LOS ANGELES — Clarence Avant is a legend in the entertainment industry, known by many as the “Black Godfather,” a revered but limelight-shunning nonagenarian. And he was married for 54 years to Jacqueline “Jackie” Avant, who was fatally shot early Wednesday by suspects at their Beverly Hills home.
As lionized as he is, including in a 2019 documentary, Clarence Avant is not a household name to many outside the worlds of music, sports, film and politics.
The 90-year-old music executive, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year, grew up as a poor kid in Depression-era North Carolina. He rose to become a behind-the-scenes titan of managing, deal-making and problem-solving across the spectrum of Black entertainment.
“Clarence is a guy who wasn’t looking for the job he ended up with,” entertainment magnate David Geffen said in “The Black Godfather,” Netflix’s recent documentary about Avant that was directed by Reginald Hudlin.
After joining the music business in New York in the 1950s, he was mentored by the late, mob-connected Joe Glaser, the legendary manager of Louis Armstrong. Avant started out managing a previous era’s jazz and soul royalty, including jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, jazz musician Jimmy Smith and Argentine composer-pianist Lalo Schifrin. Schifrin was the reason Avant relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1960s.
Avant met his future wife, then Jackie Gray, who had modeled as part of the traveling Ebony Fashion Fair aimed at introducing new styles to Black communities, in the mid-1960s. By then a player in the New York music business, he wooed her with VIP treatment at such clubs as Birdland and the Apollo Theater.
As the years passed, he became involved in the beginnings of today’s R&B and rap empires, with sports and politics thrown in for good measure. Some name-dropping achievements include working in a promotional role on Michael Jackson’s 1987 Bad world tour and mentoring the songwriting-production team of Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and LA Reid.
Avant reached out to Hank Aaron to coordinate a Coca-Cola endorsement before the late baseball legend broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record in 1974. He produced a prime-time special that helped Muhammad Ali transition from retiring boxing star to beloved entertainment figure, insisting that the network hire a Black director for it.
He helped pave the way to bring national politicians together with the entertainment industry’s Black community, putting together a star-studded concert for Andrew Young when the civil-rights icon — later named U.S. ambassador to the United Nations by President Jimmy Carter — was running for Congress in 1972.
Avant launched Sussex Records, the second of his two labels, in late 1969 and launched the career of singer Bill Withers. The singles “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me” and “Use Me” all came out on Sussex, which shut down in 1975.