Clarence Avant Hollywood deal maker
“One of the things he understood there was a different kind of power, there was power that needs spotlight, then there is power that comes from working behind the scene” — Former President Barack Obama
“One of the things he understood there was a different kind of power, there was power that needs spotlight, then there is power that comes from working behind the scene” — Former President Barack Obama on Clarence Avant
Clarence Avant documentary unveils story of an influential ‘mover and shaker’ behind the scenes from Hollywood to Washington, D.C.
The name Clarence Avant is one held in high esteem from rap mogul P. Diddy to former president Bill Clinton.
A newly released Netflix documentary tells the story of the most influential personalities behind the scenes from Hollywood to Washington D.C., and the general public is not familiar with his name.
A year ago last May, sitting in a Beverly Hills delicatessen in a meeting with director, producer, and friend Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang), I asked him about his latest project, “The Black Godfather: The Clarence Avant Story,” a Netflix documentary
I watched it the first weekend it was released. Many documentaries get bogged down with back story setup, some you can’t sit through without second-guessing whether I could have made better use of my time, After viewing, I found “The Black Godfather: The Clarence Avant Story,” informative, entertaining, and inspiring.
Let’s be honest every director or producer has some hits and misses, Hudlin is no different, and it was a gamble on his part to put all of his eggs into a production about a person many were not aware of until now, but it’s paying off.
The documentary explores Avant’s humble beginnings during the Great Depression in Climax, N.C,, which was a long way from his future years as a music agent, promoter in Harlem, and eventually leading to film production, the owner of a record label, and FM radio station owner… name it he’s done it.
This is not just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, it was a planetary alliance in space that put Avant everywhere he needed to be at the right time which changed history, Whatever needed to be accomplished for his clients he got it done and then some. His friends and clients tell an interesting narrative from each of their perspectives especially those who needed his assistance or advice or his representation before the top brass from coast to coast.
Famous former football player, actor, activist Jim Brown, once described him as fearless.
Avant’s intro into the music industry began with his short stint working for an African American concert promoter Teddy Powell out of Newark N.J. Avant was his club manager and he worked with such acts as Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.
The founder and owner of Associated Booking Company Joseph G. Glaser who was a former associate of Al Capone took Avant under his wing. Glaser was a talent agent and manager of such legendary performers as Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday. Glaser saw something in Avant and even though he only finished the ninth grade he had an ability to connect with people and cut deals others could not or would not attempt.
Radio and television entrepreneur Cathy Hughes, founder of Radio One / TV One said of Avant:
“He was like a sponge. He observed the best of everybody he saw,” and this was true of his time under Glaser’s tutelage.
Avant’s representation of jazz organist Jimmy Smith was the catalyst for change in his career, He developed a reputation for being a fighter on the behalf of his clients, while other agents would settle for an industry standard payment for artists who were shopping for a record label. Avant would get top dollar.
It was at this time in the early sixties that he met Quincy Jones, and his future wife, former Ebony Fashion Fair model Jacqueline Avant, Clarence represented a young jazz piano player Lalo Schifrin (Mission Impossible and Enter the Dragon) Schifrin was on tour with Dizzy Gillespie and told Glaser he wanted to stop touring and go to Hollywood to write film scores.
Glaser instructed Avant to move to Hollywood and represent Schifrin and meet all of the studio heads to get him in the door, it was his relationship with Schifrin who later became one of the greatest film and television composer and arranger that opened doors for him to become what some would call a Hollywood mogul.
Jones said, “He was fearless … man, absolutely fearless, I remember when all those guys were talking about the man’s holding me back; he was calling Lew Wasserman a ‘Mo Fo’and meeting with him and getting things done”
Wasserman was the chairman and CEO, Music Corporation of America, president of MCA and what Glaser was to Avant on the east coast before he passed, Wasserman was his doorway on the west coast. Wasserman often called on him for assistance with fundraisers and if there was any outreach for Black celebrities all doors eventually led to him.
Avant created Sussex Records where he discovered such artists as Bill Withers (Ain’t No Sunshine), and Rodriguez whose music became an anthem in South Africa during the latter days of Apartheid.
One of his first acts to sign on his label was Dennis Coffey (Scorpio) a White act. The instrumental Scorpio became a number one R&B funk hit and Avant came under fire because he never told stations that Coffey was White.
Avant’s daughter Nicole Avant recounts her father’s response to the controversy. “Who gives a s–t whether he was Black or White? It’s just music.” Avant was not your average Black. While some wanted to be the next Berry Gordy, who Avant also worked with.
Dick Clark of American Bandstand noticed how Soul Train was a marketing jewel to the Black community, owned, produced and sponsored by African Americans and he convinced ABC to create a knock off called Soul.
Don Cornelius contacted Avant because he was very concerned Clark had a lot of pull and advertisers would flock to him. Avant, through his deal-making ability, stopped that from happening simply by scaring them with a mass protest.
Hollywood was always a pool of financial help for social programs and liberal politicians who needed the national exposure, Avant became close to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sen. Ted Kennedy, and President Bill Clinton — all longtime friends and associates, Clinton once said Avant encouraged him not to let the Republicans push him out of office, but to keep fighting,
“Don’t let them do it,” Avant told him.
In 2004 a young junior senator from Chicago was scheduled to speak at the 2004 Democratic Convention, but the only time he was scheduled to speak was in the middle of the day when the viewership was down. Clarence Avant made a call and the young senator was bumped up to prime time.
History was in the making, That senator was Barack H. Obama, who would go on to become the first Black president in the history of the United States of America.
There are some light moments of pure levity between Avant and his longtime friend Quincy Jones, It is like sitting around the kitchen table with your family, especially that uncle who doesn’t take any mess, the one that keeps it 100 percent real with a few blue words now and then.
What makes this documentary work is the large cast of who’s who, you sit and watch in amazement who comes up next on the screen with a Clarence Avant story even his family shares some moving moments of the husband and father who had some peaks and valleys. As for the valleys, the 88-year-old member of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, says — “You come in with a number and you leave with a number.”
Life goes on.
K. Gerard Thomas is a freelance journalism living in Southern California.