Clarence Avant Remembered for Helping Guide Political Careers of 3 Presidents

The music industry executive had close ties with former Democratic presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama

A brown-skinned man wearing sunglasses and a suit stands next to an older photo of his bust on a banner that reads "The Black Godfather"
File: Clarence Avant attends Netflix world premiere of "The Black Godfather" at the Paramount Theater on June 3, 2019 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix)

Music executive and political fundraiser Clarence Avant, who died at his home Sunday in Los Angeles, was remembered Monday for not only guiding musicians and actors but for helping launch the political careers of three presidents.

The music industry legend became a whiz at political fundraising and mentoring young politicians — including former President Bill Clinton, who called him “skillful, savvy, warm, and wise” in a Monday statement.

“There is only one Clarence Avant,” veteran LA-based Democratic consultant Kerman Maddox told TheWrap. “Others will carry on what he started, but Clarence truly was one of a kind.”

While helping the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole, Avant was a pivotal figure in advancing life for Black people in entertainment and politics, Maddox said.

“There would be no Barack Obama in the White House without people like Clarence Avant,” he said. “There would be no Kamala Harris. There would be no Karen Bass, without people like Clarence. He made a huge difference in the Black community, not just in LA but nationwide.”

Born in a segregated hospital in 1931 in Greensboro, North Carolina, Avant only attended school through the ninth grade. But he broke into the entertainment industry in the late 1950s as manager of a nightclub in Newark, New Jersey, where he met upcoming musicians. He was mentored by high-powered music agent Joe Glaser, who hired Avant to represent some of his rising Black clients. Those clients included iconic singer and trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

Avant formed Sussex Records in 1960, releasing the first few albums by Bill Withers — including the No. 1 single “Lean on Me.” In the 1970s, Avant founded Tabu Records, before later managing Motown Records in the 1990s.

He used his connections and skills to become a top fundraiser for three presidents — Jimmy Carter, Clinton, and Barack Obama. He helped football legend Jim Brown break into acting and brokered an endorsement deal for baseball home-run king Hank Aaron.

Honoring Avant in his statement Monday, Clinton noted “his compassion, mentorship, and generosity,” stating that Avant was a positive influence for people beyond helping their careers.

“It was impossible to spend time with him and not come away feeling more positive and wanting to follow his example. We just loved him,” Clinton said.

Loyalty was something Avant preached to friends and family. In fact, when Obama ran for president, Avant supported Hillary Clinton due to his solid relationship with her and Bill. But he also supported his daughter, Nicole Avant, when she decided to raise cash for Obama’s first presidential run in 2008. After Obama won, the elder Avant helped with fundraising to get him reelected in 2012.

Maddox, a managing partner of Dakota Communications, told TheWrap that Nicole has the same skills and savvy as her father, along with his dedication to the Democratic Party. Maddox said she will grow into the “wise mentor role” her father filled so well, beyond fundraising.

“Clarence was the guy that everybody went to for advice and counsel. He was the guy who not only could raise money, but he had such wise counsel, such great political instincts. He was a special kind of guy,” Maddox said.

Maddox said that one thing he loved about Avant was how he was inclusive and got along with everyone, but never wavered from supporting the advancement of Black people in society.

“He was unapologetically Black at a time when a lot of people were hesitant about that, and concerned about the backlash against what they might say,” Maddox said. “That was very appealing to a lot of young guys like myself who were just coming up. I thought, ‘this dude, he’s strong. He’s pro-Black, and he’s not shy about it.’ That was part of his appeal.”

Avant could do that without putting anyone else down, Maddox said.

“He would always say, ‘Yeah, I’m not against anybody else. I’m just for Black people,’” Maddox said.