“Life is about one thing: numbers! Nothing else. Life begins with a number and ends with a number.” Clarence Avant
The world might have never known about the genius of Bill Withers, the soul singer and songwriter behind classics like Lean on Me and Ain’t No Sunshine, were it not for Clarence Avant.
The US record company executive, mentor and deal-maker whose influence transcended music, film, sport and politics, died in Los Angeles on August 13 at the age of 92.
Withers, who had been working for a company making aircraft toilet seats had been rejected by various record labels until his demo tape landed on the desk of Avant who signed him to recording contract in 1971.
“Clarence exemplifies a certain level of cool,” says former US President Barack Obama in the 2019 documentary The Black Godfather.
“A certain level of street smart and savvy that allowed him to move into worlds that nobody prepared him for and say ‘I can figure this out’.”
For more than six decades, Avant was the go-to guy for Black entertainers in America, from managing jazz icons like Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Smith, and his lifelong friend Quincy Jones, to producing Michael Jackson’s phenomenal Bad World tour in 1987.
He advised and mentored a younger generation of artists and producers like Sean “P Diddy” Combs, Babyface, Snoop Dogg, Pharrell Williams, and Jamie Foxx.
His influence spread to the civil rights movement and politics, supporting the campaigns of American Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
“I can’t make speeches,” he said in 2013 when accepting an award during the Black Entertainment Television (BET) Honors. “That’s not my life; I make deals.”
Clarence Alexander Avant was born on February 25, 1931, the oldest child in a family of eight, in Greensboro, North Carolina, amid the segregation laws in America’s South.
“We were poor,” he recollects in the documentary. “I’m talking poor, poor, poor. We had chicken-feet soup.” He was only educated to the ninth grade and would remind people that he succeeded in his life thanks to his street smarts. “People say ‘Where did you go to college?” Ninth grade is as far I got.”
He fled home as a teenager after an attempt to kill his abusive stepfather by putting rat poison in his food. His introduction to show business came while working at a nightclub in Newark in the late 1950s.
It was Joe Glaser, manager of top jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan who convinced Avant to get into show business as a manager. “You are a great salesman,” he told Avant.
In 1970 he launched his first label, Sussex Records, an amalgam of success and sex, according to him, the two things that people want more than anything else in life.
The label’s biggest success was with Bill Withers’ debut album Just as I Am which won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for Ain’t No Sunshine in 1972. Withers said it was Avant that picked the timeless Lean on Me as the first single from the album.
Avant supported civil rights icon Andrew Young’s successful campaign for Congress in Georgia with a star-studded concert featuring performances by Isaac Hayes, Bill Cosby, and Rare Earth.
In 1971, his broadcasting company bought one of the first black-owned radio stations in the US but his business later run into financial difficulties over unpaid taxes leading to the closure of the station and record company.
By 1979, Avant had bounced back, set up a new label called Tabu Records and hired top producers, Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam.
"At that point in my life, I had never met an honourable black man who would give you more than you asked for, and enough that you needed it” recalls Terry Lewis about their first meeting with Avant.
The duo produced some of the biggest acts of the 1980s like the S.O.S Band, Cherelle, Alexander O’Neal and Janet Jackson.
Avant, who was chairman of Motown Records from 1993 to 1999, was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021.
His impact was also felt in sports as he brokered an endorsement deal for baseball legend Hank Aaron with Coca-Cola and produced a TV primetime tribute to boxer Mohammed Ali in 1975.
“As a dealmaker, he’s the best in the business,” says Rev Jesse Jackson. “There is no negotiating dealmaker in Hollywood or New York better than Clarence Avant.”
“When the Republicans were trying to run me out of town, Clarence Avant looked at me at said ‘don’t even think about it’ he said ‘this ain’t gonna happen unless you give in,’” says former US President Clinton referring to his impeachment in 1998.
As rapper Ludacris says in the documentary: “There will never be another Clarence Avant. However, his goal is to plant seeds so that there can be individuals just like him.”