He's the perennial godfather of our business. "Everyone in this business has been by Clarence's desk--if they're smart." That insightful comment from longtime friend Quincy Jones explains in a nutshell why Clarence Avant remains the go-to guy for executives both veteran (Doug Morris, Jimmy Iovine, Antonio "L.A." Reid) and rising (Jon Platt, Ethiopia Habtemariam) alike--not to mention artists and producers. At a time when mentoring has become a lost art in a shrinking industry chasing first-week sales, the spry 81-year-old stands out as a tireless advocate of opportunities for African-Americans.
President of Avant Garde and Interior Music, administered worldwide by Universal Music Publishing Group, Avant shuns the spotlight. But his diverse career, entrepreneurial endeavors, social/political activism--and attendant relationships-speak volumes. As a manager early on, he represented '50s R&B singer Little Willie John ("Fever") and jazz producer Creed Taylor. He launched two record companies, Sussex and Tabu, cultivating rosters that included Bill Withers, Dennis Coffey and the S.O.S. Band. The lattermost act sparked a fortuitous introduction to emerging songwriting/production duo Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Avant played an instrumental role in the pair's success (as well as that of another hit-making duo, Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds), offering lessons on everything from negotiating contracts to organizing budgets.
Named Motown chairman in 1993, Avant became the first African-American to serve on the International Management Board for PolyGram four years later. Involved in the social and political arenas, his relationships range from the presidential (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) to the entrepreneurial (Oprah Winfrey). Although well-known for not mincing words when voicing his opinion, Avant is a humble and funny man fueled by a passion for helping others. "Clarence is our deal-making Renaissance man. Our pope. Our rebel. Our consigliere," veteran label executive Sylvia Rhone told Billboard in 2006. "He's been a great mentor . . . creating a world of opportunity for others to follow." - Gail Mitchell