Monday, January 18, 2021

Special Edition: The Living Legends Foundation Presents The Living Legends Series with a Salute to the ‘Godfather of Black Music,’ Clarence Avant

clarence avant
Clarence Avant

*In this special edition of The Living Legends Series, contributor Gwendolyn Quinn talks with Ray Harris, founder of The Living Legends Foundation (LLF), Chairman David C. Linton, General Counsel Kendall A. Minter, Esq., and former President and board member Miller London, who was honored this past week by the foundation with the prestigious Chairman’s Award. During the Living Legends weekend the “Godfather of Black Music,” Clarence Avant was also honored with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

With over six decades in music and entertainment, Avant, now 85 years old, has successfully built multiple record companies, music publishing companies, radio stations, and have produced film, television and theater projects, as well as other business ventures and platforms. Over the years, he has mentored many black music executives and his contributions as a philanthropist is well documented.

In 2007, The Living Legends Foundation honored Avant for his illustrious career and his many significant contributions in entertainment. Harris, Linton, Minter and London shared their reflections on another historic moment for the “Godfather of Black Music.”

Ray Harris
I’ve known Clarence Avant for over 40 years. He is the consummate businessman, in and out of the music business. He is well respected at all levels of the business, both in the political and humanitarian communities. There is no greater negotiator; his business instincts are incredible. He has been a mentor for many artists, producers, writers, and record executives, and I have benefited from his wise counsel and am glad to call him a friend. He has always been an advocate for the advancement of black music for artists and record executives. Known as the “Godfather of Black Music,” it is an ample title for him because he is a national treasure. I don’t think that there is a block big enough to put his star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, but no one deserves the honor more than Clarence. I remember the first time I met Clarence Avant. At the time, I was working at RCA Records and was sitting in my office when I heard this loud voice bellowing, “Where is Ray Harris? Where is his office? Not knowing what to expect, he came into my office, stated that he just made a deal with Ken Glancey, then president of RCA Records for a group named Brainstorm. Glancey suggested that Clarence come down to meet me. I got up and came from around my desk and shook his hand. Clarence then proceeded to sit behind my desk to use my phone. He dialed a number and stated this is Clarence Avant and I would like to speak to Jody Powell, then press secretary to President Jimmy Carter. He was told that Jody was not available. Clarence asked whoever he was speaking to, to find him and have him call him back at my office in 15 minutes. I am was looking at this crazy man, and asking myself did this crazy man just barge into my office, sit behind my desk, call the White House and demanded to speak to Jody Powell? Well, I got my answer. Jody Powell called my office within 15 minutes and asked to speak to Clarence, and Clarence preceded to tear into Jody with some choice words and told him to pass them on to the President of The United States. Mouth wide opened, I then immediately knew I had just shook the hand of the baddest black man who I have ever met in my life, and he still is. Needless to say, we took Brainstorm top ten with the hit single “This Must Be Heaven.” He then proceeded to take Brainstorm to CBS for a better deal. That’s Clarence, the ultimate dealmaker. Love you man and congratulations on your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!

David C. Linton
The first time I saw the name Clarence Avant was in 1971 as a junior high school student. It was on Bill Wither’s debut album, Just as I Am. I was the kid who read all the liner notes when I saw an album. We had a record store on the corner and we could hear the new songs played on New York’s WWR radio station. I was fascinated to learn he owned the record label Sussex, also home to the group Creative Source. I’ve always been fascinated with black entrepreneurs, especially in the entertainment business.

Fast forward six years to 1977, I’m in college, starting my career as a radio announcer and this group Brainstorm comes out with “Loving is Really My Game” on Tabu Records and I see the name Clarence Avant again. Now he’s the owner of Tabu. During the 1980s, Tabu had a flurry of hits and sometime around 1986, as the general manager at WRVS-FM, I finally met Clarence Avant through the late Jheryl Busby. It was a quick introduction, but to me it was making a connection to someone I had read about since my teen years.

It wasn’t until 1992 that a real relationship was formed, when I became Vice President at PolyGram Label Group and he was an advisor to Alain Levy. It was the late Joey Bonner who told Clarence I was one of his guys, thus giving me a stamp of approval. Since that time he has given me advice on career moves or how to navigate the choppy waters of the music industry as a black executive. When things got crazy I could call “Clarence;” and the same way someone would say “Michael,” “Whitney,” “Aretha,” or “Oprah,” people know who you are talking about in our business. Clarence has that kind of cache, no last name needed. The funniest moment came during my last days as senior vice president at Capitol Records when a new regime was ushered in. I called Clarence to help save my gig, and he went to bat. Till this day, it still cracks me up the phone conversation we had after his talks with the EMI hierarchy. I will paraphrase it, but if you know Clarence you know it was colorful, “Damn David, I didn’t know they were paying you like that…they are going to get three people for you. It ain’t about you man, it’s all about money and all I can tell you brother is to take the money and run.” Of course I listened to Clarence!

He’s done so much for so many people. He deserves to be immortalized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame because he’s helped so many walk into fame and fortune. I’m blessed to be able to call him at the office or at home. What an honor for a kid from Brooklyn to know the man called “The Godfather of Black Music.”

Miller London
In the mid-seventies, I was summoned to the Century Plaza Hotel to have a meeting with Clarence Avant. I knew him as the owner of Sussex Records and somewhat of a mover and shaker in the business. Little did I know at the time what a giant of a man I was meeting with. Clarence offered me a position at Columbia Records Group to head up their black music sales team. I was grateful that anyone outside of Motown recognized what I was doing and wanted me. I was so happy being with Motown that I turned down the offer and Clarence could not understand how I could turn down such an offer. It was a major company and they were offering me a lot more money than I was making. Well, I explained to Clarence that working for Motown as a black man and what it represented to black people was more important to me than working for a big company or the money. Clarence looked at me and said I respect you for that and we stayed in touch. I then started to be more and more aware Clarence’s impact on the music and radio business when he purchased KAGB radio station. I could not wait to be his biggest flag waver. I was as proud of him as I was of Berry Gordy. A black man doing things. Fast forward to 1992 and Clarence didn’t forget me and summoned me once again and offered me the position of Executive VP and GM of Black Music at A&M Records. This time I jumped and this I think forged a relationship that lasts until today. Clarence’s history in the music business is so profound that only he can tell the story. He told me that he is working on that and I can’t wait. I am so proud to say that two of the black men that I am so grateful to have in my life—both have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—Berry Gordy and Clarence Avant.

Kendall A. Minter, Esq.
What do the words “Godfather, guru, mentor, philanthropist, father, husband, friend, entrepreneur, chairman, icon. PhD, honoree, visionary, and role model all have in common: Clarence Avant!

Clarence is and has always been the Wizard of Oz behind the artfully draped curtain, advising, mentoring, dealmaking and making history—unbeknownst to most outside of the directly involved circle. His career and business path is nothing short of phenomenal and includes helming Motown Records as Chairman, advisor to scores of music industry executives and politicians, founder of Sussex Records and Tabu Records, owner of incredible music publishing catalogs, which include such classics as Bill Withers’ “Just As I Am,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” and “Lean On Me”; Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award honoree, honorary doctorate from Morehouse College, Living Legends Foundation honoree, Recording Academy (NARAS) honoree, film executive producer and scores of other accomplishments.

I have always been able to confer with and rely on Clarence for sound, on-point advice regarding matters in and outside of the music industry and he has an uncanny sense of cutting out the fat and getting right to the “bone” of the issues.  Humble beyond measure, “old school” to the max, loyal and consistent. Out of the blue, I can expect to receive a call from Clarence, jokingly asking if I’m still eating veggie burgers and I laughingly ask if he’s still killing cows. Then we immediately switch to his recent discussions with the Clintons or one of the numerous music industry icons.  That’s the Clarence we know, respect and love.

gwendolyn quinn (hair)
Gwendolyn Quinn

Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media specialist with a career spanning over 25 years. She is the founder of the African American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) and the publisher of Global Communicator. Her weekly columns, “Inside Broadway with Gwendolyn Quinn” and “My Person of the Week” are published with Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business. Contact her at [email protected].




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