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 the 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.