The Black Godfather
8 October 2021-
A few weeks from now, Clarence Avant will officially be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the 2021 recipient of the Ahmet Ertegun award. One more trophy to be added to the rest...
A couple of years ago, a documentary showed up on Netflix the way only Netflix knows how: seemingly out of nowhere, this remarkably well put together piece of filmmaking put front and center a certain Clarence Avant for the better part of 2 hours. Along with Quincy Jones, (now) Vice President Kamala Harris, the late Bill Withers, Lionel Richie, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Snoop Dogg… oh, and Mr. Barack Obama himself. If you go check out the documentary, you will notice that we did not even mention other interviewees that are nevertheless icons in the musical and entertainment world — because there simply are too many to count here.
Interestingly, though, the name of Clarence Avant is not as notorious as Snoop Dogg’s, let’s leave it at that.
There are many reasons for that. For one, Mr Avant, who turned 90 years old this year, belongs to a somewhat different era. He, Berry Gordy and Quincy Jones actually stand as some of the last remaining giants behind the musical explosion of the 1960’s — onwards. But, even then, one might argue that his profile was less prominent than that of Gordy, who was once dating Motown superstar Diana Ross, or “Q”, whose status as legendary producer of a certain Michael Jackson places him in arguably rarefied air. Yet, the fact that Mr Obama is being interviewed about him is a clue as to the mighty yet discreet influence the man has held for decades.
Indeed, Clarence Avant has been the architect of many projects whose impact has resonated in society, from promoting massively successful musical acts like Bill Withers to launching the career of superstar producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to supporting civil rights leader Andrew Young in his historical bid to get elected to the House of Representatives to helping solve an issue involving Michael Jackson and Steven Spielberg over music rights for an E.T.-related project… Mr Avant, whether you know it or not, has been quietly but decisively ensuring that worthy initiatives get the attention they require across the board.
There is another aspect to Avant’s life’s work that explains the fact that so many people are eager to celebrate him today: a particular goal of his was — and still his — to single out the talents and projects hailing from the African-American community and its various pallbearers. And he has done that splendidly well: in the masterful 2020 Netflix film (again…) One Night In Miami, NFL star-turned actor Jim Brown can be seen mulling over this very career change, notwithstanding the fact that Mr Avant was in actuality helping and advising said career change. Another thing we learn in the documentary is how selflessly he helped launch so many careers, like those of Babyface or L.A. Reid, to name just two more superstars involved in this story. Always reminding everyone involved that kindness should in turn foster more kindness…
Barack Obama is no exception. It just so happens that one of Avant’s daughters was not only part of the President’s seminal 2008 presidential campaign. Clarence himself was not, however, as he was an old friend of Bill Clinton and therefore of his wife, Hillary. He readily confesses in the documentary that, although he quite obviously admired Obama, he could simply not fathom the possibility of the United States of America electing a Black president. But much like he became the Black Godfather, Barack Obama did indeed become the Black President. Or, rather, a Black President.