Avant, Clarence 19(?)(?)–
Clarence Avant 19(?)(?)–
Recording industry executive
Clarence Avant has long been known for his shrewd business acumen and deal-making skills. During his 30-year career, he has been actively involved in promoting opportunities for African Americans in the recording industry, and campaigning for Democratic political candidates. “He’s been there for everybody, and if he’d helped himself as much as he’s helped everyone else along the way, he’d be a billionaire by now,” remarked Quincy Jones, a record producer and good friend of Avant’s, in a 1991 Black Enterprise article.
Avant has helped foster the reputations of numerous performers and producers, and advised prominent Americans in both government and business. His success has been achieved mostly through individual effort, rather than collaboration with others in the recording industry. As was noted in Black Enterprise, “Often dressed in sweatsuits and sneakers discussing deals in the rough-and tumble language of the street, this power broker has developed the strategies, chutzpah, and contacts to become the most influential black in the music business and some say in the entire entertainment industry.”
Avant’s road to success began in the early 1960s, when he managed the careers of a variety of people in the music industry. Among those he represented were the blues artist Little Willie John, jazz organist Jimmy Smith, composer Lalo Schifrin, jazz producer Creed Taylor, and rock-and-roll recording pioneer Tom Wilson. Later in the decade, Avant exhibited his talent for making successful deals when he engineered the first joint venture between an African American artist and MGM, a major record company.
In 1971, Avant strengthened his presence within the music industry by forming his own record company, Sussex Records. He quickly signed recording artists Bill Withers, Dennis Coffey, Gallery, The Presidents, and Wadsworth Mansion to his new label. Avant also purchased KAGB-FM, which became one of the first African American-owned FM radio stations in metropolitan Los Angeles. In 1975, he formed Tabu Records. Tabu became a very successful venture and notable artists such as the S.O.S. Band, Alexander O’Neal, Cherrelle, and Kool & the Gang were signed to the label. Avant’s skills as a producer and deal maker played a key role in the successful rise of African American producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. He also helped “L.A.” Reid and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds create LaFace Records in the 1980s.
Despite his own personal success, Avant lamented on the continued lack of African American representation within the upper echelons of the recording industry. “Black music is responsible for [about] 20% of the revenues in the record industry … but we sure as hell aren’t pulling 20% of the dollar or enjoying 20% of the power,” he told Black Enterprise in 1991. In the same interview, Avant placed some of the blame at the feet of
Born in Greensboro, NC; married to Jacqueline Avant; children: Nicole, Alex.
Career: Managed Willie John, Jimmy Smith, Lalo Schifrin, Creed Taylor, and Tom Wilson, early 1960s; engineered first joint venture deal for an African American with a major record company (MGM), late 1960s; formed Sussex Records, 1971; became owner of KAGB-FM, 1970s; founded Tabu Records, 1975; served as delegate to the Dominican Republic, late 1970s; was member of the Trade Mission to the African Nations for United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young; helped guide the careers of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; helped Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenny “Baby-face” Edmonds launch of LaFace Records, late 1980s; became chairman of Motown Records, 1993; became part of investment group for New Age Beverages, a partnership with PepsiCo in South Africa, 1994; co-investor of Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Hotel, Miami, FL, 1997; became first African American to serve on International Management Board of Polygram, 1997; serves as Resident Jamaican Trade Counsel.
Memberships: board member, NAACP Legal Defense Fund; board member, Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA); board member, PolyGram International Management; board member, Motown Cafe; Apollo Theater Foundation; Los Angeles World Affairs Council; Inner City Broadcasting Corporation; Qwest Broadcasting.
Awards and honors: The Brotherhood Crusade’s Tribute Award; The Operation P.U.S.H. Award; Neil Bogart Children’s Choice Award; Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award; American Achievement Award.
Addresses: Business —Motown Records, 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019.
African Americans. “There will never be an African American running an entire majority-owned record company, business affairs, or legal department unless black record executives look beyond black music, learn about financing, and aspire to own something,” he remarked.
In 1993 Avant was named chairman of Motown Records, the label that propelled legendary artists such as Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Diana Ross, and Lionel Richie to stardom. He also became involved in other lucrative business ventures. In 1994, Avant and a group of other notable African American investors created a $20 million investment partnership in South Africa called New Age Beverages. New Age soon teamed with PepsiCo to build a bottling plant in South Africa. This plant was PepsiCo’s first venture in the country since 1985, when it left South Africa to protest the policies of apartheid. The plant was to be completely managed by South Africans and financing was provided to truck drivers at the plant so that they could eventually purchase their own trucks.
In 1997, Avant and a group of other African American investors purchased the Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Hotel in Miami. This purchase marked the establishment of Miami’s first African American-owned luxury hotel. That same year, Avant became the first African American to be appointed to the international management board of PolyGram Records.
In 1996, Avant and Quincy Jones were presented with the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award. At the award ceremony in Washington, D.C. Elaine Jones, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, praised Avant and Jones for their contributions, “Clarence Avant and Quincy Jones have earned our highest respect and esteem for the work they’ve done over the span of a lifetime.”
Avant has been an active member of the Democratic party, both at the local and national levels. During the Carter administration, he was a delegate to the Dominican Republic and served as a member of the Trade Mission to the African Nations for United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young. During the 1990s, Avant played key roles in President Clinton’s presidential campaigns and currently serves as Resident Jamaican Trade Counsel.
Avant continues to be a major figure in the recording industry, where his reputation as a trailblazer and mentor to generations of African American artists is legendary.
Black Enterprise, December 1991, p. 50; March 1997, p. 17.
Jet, June 3, 1996, p. 4; December 1, 1997, p. 54.
Music Week, August 14, 1993, p. 5.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 4, 1994, p. B1.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Motown Records Publicity & Media Relations Division.
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