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Clarence Avant, Quiet Force in Black Entertainment, Dies at 92

Clarence Avant, a record executive who shaped the careers not only of Bill Withers, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and other Black singers, but also of politicians, actors and sports figures — exerting so much influence that a 2019 documentary about him was called simply “The Black Godfather” — died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 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, moved easily in the high-powered world of entertainment, helping to establish the idea that Black culture and consumers were forces to be reckoned with.

He started out managing a nightclub in Newark in the late 1950s and moved on to representing some of the artists he met there. Joe Glaser, a high-powered agent who handled Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and many other top acts, took Mr. Avant under his wing; perhaps, the documentary suggested, Mr. Glaser, who was white, thought it would be advantageous to have a Black man representing some of his Black clients.

In any case, Mr. Avant was soon handling artists including the jazz organist Jimmy Smith and traveling in rarefied circles. Not all 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 started on a career composing for film and television. Though he knew nothing about the movie business, Mr. Avant worked his brand of magic on the West Coast: Mr. Schifrin has to date been nominated for six Oscars.

In 1960 Mr. Avant formed Sussex Records — he said the name was his combination of the two things people want more than anything else, success and sex — which lasted only about half a decade but released, among other records, Mr. Withers’s early albums.

“Clarence made some great choices musically,” Mr. Withers, who died in 2020, said in the documentary. “‘Lean on Me’” — Mr. Withers’s only Billboard No. 1 hit — “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, build 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 the power that needs the spotlight, but there’s also the power that comes from being behind the scenes.”

In 2013, accepting the entrepreneur award at the BET Honors, one of many he received in his career, Mr. Avant summed himself up.

“I can’t make speeches,” he told the crowd while clutching his trophy. “That’s not my life. I make deals.”

A complete obituary will appear soon.

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