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20 People Who Changed Black Music: Pioneering Exec Clarence Avant, the Master Mentor

Clarence Avant has pretty much done it all in his career as a music executive. He has launched or guided the careers of numerous entertainment stars including, Quincy Jones, Bill Withers, Dennis Coffey, The Presidents, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. He is former chairman of Motown and once owned record labels Sussex and Tabu. He even made an appearance in the movie "The Color Purple."

He's a known and well respected figure among those in the entertainment industry, but he's far from a household name. And he likes it that way.

"I grew up in the record business - over 40 years I been in it - and one thing I've learned in all that time is that you don't say nothing," Avant said in a chapter he contributed to "Q, The Autobiography of Quincy Jones."

What Avant knows would fill volumes of books. In an issue of Billboard magazine devoted to his career, some admirers took out a full-page ad and asked Avant to write one. He didn't say yes. He didn't say no. He just didn't respond.

"I don't think he's reticent. It sounds like he doesn't want to be bothered," said Andy Kellman, assistant editor at

"I had heard his name and read about him, that with the Sussex and Tabu labels, he went from helping Bill Withers to giving Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis their first break with the SOS Band. Billboard last year had a story about him and put him on the front and that was the first picture I ever saw of him," Kellman told

That Feb. 11, 2006, issue of Billboard magazine was dedicated to Avant for his birthday and included congratulations, some in the form of full-page ads, from a number of celebrities and entertainment industry players.

"When you get someone like Quincy Jones calling you the godfather of the industry, that's pretty big," Kellman said.

"The fact that he's not a household name says a lot about him and his humility," Jimmy Jam Harris told "Behind the scenes moves mountains."

Harris said his relationship with Avant dates back to 1982, when he and business partner Terry Lewis went to Los Angeles to meet Avant after a tour with The Time, of which they were both members.

"We had a meeting with him, and actually our manager went in first to talk to him. Clarence came out and said, ‘You guys come in, and leave your manager outside.' I thought, 'Man, he must have asked for too much.' We went in, and Clarence said, ‘Your manager sold you short; you're worth more than that. Here's what I'm gonna offer you, and this is what I want to do.' And we knew right there we were dealing with an honest man."

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis went on to produce for the SOS Band, and their first big hit for the group was the 1983 smash, "Just Be Good To Me."

Besides launching the pair as hitmakers, Harris said Avant continued to mentor them.

"He talked us out of a bad publishing deal we were about to enter" and encouraged them to prepare and groom themselves to take the baton from industry pioneers such as Avant and Berry Gordy.

"We really took that to heart and decided to try to put ourselves in the position where we wouldn't be Clarence necessarily, but we would be able to help other people," Harris said.

In the late 1960s, Avant successfully engineered the first joint venture between a black American recording artist and a major record company. Under his labels, he signed Bill Withers, Dennis Coffey and The Presidents.

In 1993, he was named chairman of Motown Records. In 1997, he became the first black on the International Management Board for Polygram records. Avant is president of his own publishing companies, Avant Garde and Interior Music Corp, is a member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the African-American Advisory Board of Pepsi-Cola. In 2003, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Morehouse College.

"Clarence has both given of his personal resources and attracted financial support to the college," said Kathleen Johnson, special assistant to the president for the Capital Campaign at Morehouse.

Johnson told that Avant helped raise $500,000 for the education building at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center and the Morehouse Music Education Building, including funding for a digital lab in the Music Education Building's library.

"Since becoming an honorary Morehouse man, he has been extraordinarily committed to the college," Johnson said. "When he received his honorary degree, he actually met with a classroom of students who were music majors and aspiring to careers in the music industry."

She said that a number of luminaries flew in for a dinner that Avant friend and Morehouse alumnus Julius Hollis threw for him when he received his honorary degree, including Def Jam head L.A. Reid and Radio One executive Cathy Hughes.

Johnson also said that Avant has given of his time to Morehouse alumni, returning their calls and giving them advice.

"He has proven himself an able mentor by giving the students advice, putting them on the right track, being straight with them, which is a rarity these days. He's a person of great moral character," Johnson said.

"He's really become the source person, and he has a reputation for shunning the spotlight," she added. "He is a tireless advocate for the black community. We are privileged to have him as part of our college family."

In 2004, Universal Music Publishing Group announced it would administer Clarence Avant's music publishing catalogues, including representation worldwide for synchronization of licensing for motion picture, TV, advertising and other media.

The Avant catalogues encompass many hit songs, including the Withers classics "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me" and "Grandma's Hands."

In its news release announcing the move, David Renzer, worldwide president of Universal Music Publishing Group, said, "Clarence Avant is one of the true pioneers of our industry, whether wearing the hat of record label executive, label owner, manager, publisher and most of all as mentor to a great deal of creative and executive talent. We are pleased to be involved in his role as publisher, as Clarence's publishing interests include classics written by Bill Withers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, among many others."

Harris just became the first black chairman of the Recording Academy and is on the ASCAP board of directors. He said Avant urged him to get involved because there had been so little representation by black industry executives in those organizations.

"That wouldn't have happened without Clarence Avant," Harris said. "I never would have thought to do that."

Avant also told Harris and Lewis that if they ever found someone who they believed had talent and needed a break to let him know. Their first opportunity came when they met L.A. Reid and Babyface, two talented writers and musicians who seemed to be having a tough time getting a break.

"We set up a meeting with Clarence," Harris said. "They just needed the opportunity, and Clarence made sure they had the opportunity to do that. We've done projects with L.A. and Babyface together and separately. And they're still around."

Avant has helped countless others in much the same way, Harris maintains, adding that "he takes no credit for it, and he never asks for anything."

About 20 years ago, he and Lewis bought Avant a Rolls-Royce Corniche "because he wouldn't take anything," said Harris. "It was a creamy yellow with a beige convertible top. We gave him something he couldn't refuse. He drove it around for quite a while, too."

Avant, Harris said, is one of a kind. "He's one of those who broke the mold."