A version of this story about Pharrell Williams and “The Black Godfather” first appeared in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Music-business executive Clarence Avant may have helped launch or sustain the careers of a long list of luminaries, including Quincy Jones, Bill Withers and athletes like Muhammad Ali and Hank Aaron, but his reach only extended to Pharrell Williams secondhand.
“I know a lot of people that he was responsible for bringing into the industry, people who have directly affected my life and given me entrée into the industry,” said Williams, who co-wrote and performed the song “Letter to My Godfather” for the documentary about Avant, “The Black Godfather.”
“But I didn’t meet him until later. I had always just heard his name — all these people that he opened doors for talked about his immense power, his business acumen and the energy he brought to a room.”
Williams came to do the song, he said, when producer Nicole Avant (Clarence’s daughter) reached out to him on behalf of herself and director Reginald Hudlin. “They asked me to take a look at the documentary, and I just thought, ‘OK, cool,'” he said. “I thought it would be a typical music doc and give you the history. But when you realize all the backstory — where he came from, how he became the person he became, why he made the decisions he made — it painted a completely different picture for me.”
And that picture, he said, went straight into the song, an unapologetic tribute to Avant. “When I started working on the music,” he said, “I tried to pretty much paint what I experienced for the first time in the movie.”
“It came right out,” Pharrell said of writing the song. “I just knew it needed to have a choir in it, and I felt like the choir needed to do something staccato, which is the ooos. It needed open space so I could say what I really wanted to say, who he was and why he needs this now. And the song pretty much flowed.”
This is one in a series of interviews with songwriters in this year’s Oscar race. To read more from The Race Begins, click here.