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‘Godfather of Black entertainment’ Clarence Avant dies at 92

Clarence Avant in Los Angeles in 2019.Image Press Agency via Reuters file

One of the great connectors in the music and entertainment industries has died. The executive and businessman Clarence Avant boosted the careers of generations of musicians, entertainers, sports stars and politicians.

A family statement sent to NPR said that he had died “gently at home in Los Angeles” on Sunday at age 92. A cause of death was not shared.

Avant was a giant power broker in several fields, helping to nurture the careers of major Black artists and shaping the field for Black-owned companies. Among his many accomplishments: He signed singer-songwriter Bill Withers. He was the promoter for Michael Jackson’s first solo tour. He was the chairman of Motown Records. He nurtured producers, including Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Diddy — and also worked with sports heroes including Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali.

He also became a major behind-the-scenes force in politics. He advised President George H.W. Bush — but was also a fundraiser for Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

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Avant was born Feb. 25, 1931, in Greensboro, N.C. As a young man, he started out by managing a range of musicians, including blues singer Little Willie John, film music composer Lalo Schifrin, jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan and jazz organist Jimmy Smith.

Netflix — where Avant’s son-in-law, Ted Sarandos, is co-CEO — created a documentary about Avant in 2019. The film’s title carried Avant’s longtime nickname: The Black Godfather. In the documentary, former President Obama observed: “Clarence was the bridge from the time where there was no opportunity [for Black talent] to a time where where doors began to open.”

Avant was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021.

Avant came back into the news after a tragedy in December 2021: His wife, Jacqueline, whom he married in 1967, was shot to death during a violent burglary at their home in Beverly Hills. In April 2022, the murderer was sentenced to 190 years in prison.

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Avant’s survivors include his daughter Nicole, a former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas and film producer; Nicole’s husband, Ted Sarandos; and son Alex Avant, who is a talent representative.

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