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Remembering Clarence Avant, one of the great connectors in music and entertainment

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One of the great connectors in the music and entertainment industries died on Sunday. The executive and businessman Clarence Avant was 92 years old. As NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas reports, he was responsible for the careers of generations of musicians and entertainers with his combination of street savvy and business sense.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Clarence Avant was the man behind the scenes in countless deals for artists and sports stars. He grew up very poor in Climax, N.C., as the oldest of eight children. He never got a formal education past the ninth grade, but that only motivated him. One of Avant's first big scores was signing an unknown singer/songwriter already in his 30s. The artist's name was Bill Withers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO SUNSHINE")

BILL WITHERS: (Singing) Ain't no sunshine when she's gone. It's not warm when she's away.

TSIOULCAS: Avant signed Withers to his own label, Sussex Records. It's an innocuous-sounding name, but Avant had a sly sense of humor. Sussex was a portmanteau of two things Avant said he knew everyone wanted more of - success and sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO SUNSHINE")

WITHERS: (Singing) Wonder this time where she's gone.

TSIOULCAS: Sussex eventually went under, but Avant dusted himself off. He eventually was the promoter for Michael Jackson's first solo tour. He became the chairman of Motown Records. He nurtured several eras of influential musicians and producers, including Diddy, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. He connected Jimmy and Terry with Janet Jackson to create her breakthrough album, 1986's "Control," with hits like "Nasty."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NASTY")

JANET JACKSON: (Singing) That's right, let me tell you. Nasty...

TSIOULCAS: Avant also became a major force in politics. He advised President George H.W. Bush but was also a fundraiser for Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Netflix, which is headed by Avant's son-in-law, Ted Sarandos, created a documentary about him in 2019. The film's title carries Avant's longtime nickname, "The Black Godfather." In that film, Bill Clinton called Avant's counsel priceless.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BLACK GODFATHER")

BILL CLINTON: His advice, per word, was probably worth more than just about anybody I ever dealt with.

TSIOULCAS: Avant was also a deal-maker for sports heroes, including Hank Aaron and Jim Brown. He understood the power of being influential not just in politics, but in pop culture as well. In the Netflix documentary, rapper Ludacris explained that Avant's bigger goal was to promote Black talent.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BLACK GODFATHER")

LUDACRIS: Clarence is the type of person that wants everyone to do better because he understands that there are strength in numbers, and the bigger that we are together, the bigger we will be as an entire culture.

TSIOULCAS: Avant came back into the news after a tragedy in December 2021. His wife of over 50 years, Jacqueline, was killed in a violent burglary at their home in Beverly Hills. The following April, the murderer was sentenced to 190 years in prison.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.