Why the story of music producer Clarence Avant, the trailblazing figure at the center of The Black Godfather, could only be brought to life by his daughter
Words by DEGEN PENNER
Photography by RAINER HOSCH
“You don’t mind if I say a few bad words, do you?” asks Clarence Avant, sitting in the drawing room of his daughter Nicole Avant’s Hancock Park residence.
Clarence, as famed for his tough-talking ways as he is for his career in the music business, is the subject of a fascinating new documentary, The Black Godfather. Nicole, a top democratic fundraiser and former United States ambassador to the Bahamas under President Barack Obama, is one of the film’s producers. (Her husband, Ted Sarandos is chief content officer for Netflix.) Together, the two present an endearing father-daughter dynamic. When asked why he is known as the Godfather of Black Music, he jokes, “I had a few people buried, you know? So many funerals.” Nicole groans and attempts to rein him in: “Dad, dad, dad, you can’t.”
Key to Clarence’s success is that he has unfailingly spoken his mind and his wisdom has been golden. “You always got the truth from Clarence,” entertainment magnate David Geffen says in the film. Former President Bill Clinton, on screen, adds, “His advice per word is probably worth more than just about anybody I ever dealt with.” So, at age 88, the legend, who shares a home in Beverly Hills with his wife of 52 years, Jacqueline (the couple also has a son, Alexander, who is an entertainment exec), is not about to stop being himself.
“You always got the truth from Clarence”
Directed by Reginald Hudlin (director of 2017’s Marshall and a producer on 2012’s Django Unchained), the film premieres June 7 on Netflix and is a sweeping look at Clarence’s life: from his childhood in poor, rural North Carolina — where his mom was a domestic worker and the fear of the Klan was ever present — to his position as a top fundraiser and confidante of American presidents. Starting out as a music manager (he worked for mob-connected agent Joseph Glaser, whose clients included Louis Armstrong), Clarence went on to launch his own record labels, run a music-publishing business, own a radio station (a rare failure that almost led to his financial ruin) and become chairman of Motown Records.
But Clarence, one of the first black residents of Beverly Hills (he first moved to California in the late ’60s to manage legendary music composer Lalo Schifrin), did so much more behind the scenes — as the documentary makes clear — driven by his personal motto: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Nicole explains, “I wanted to tell his story in a film, because I thought, ‘No one is really going to believe all these stories.’ It’s much better to hear … from the people who actually experienced them.” Those people make up a stunning who’s who from the worlds of entertainment and politics. Clinton and Obama talk about the support Clarence gave their campaigns. Singer Bill Withers and mega music producers Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam discuss how he launched their careers.
“If you don’t ask, you don’t get”
Clarence also counseled star athletes: Hank Aaron relates how he negotiated a groundbreaking endorsement deal with Coca-Cola before the legendary hitter broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. Football great Jim Brown credits Clarence for making his film career happen. And civil rights icon Andrew Young talks about the concert Clarence put together to help him win Georgia’s 1972 congressional race. “I called him,” recalls Clarence. “And said, ‘Suppose I can deliver Bill Cosby and Isaac Hayes?’ Andrew said, ‘I ain’t got no money.’ I said, ‘I didn’t ask you that.’”
This propensity for giving back, according to Nicole, is what truly earned Clarence his godfather nickname. “He was able to be in a position of power and really help people. He’s always looked out for other people and wanted to see wealth generated for a new generation,” says Nicole, who, for the film, also arranged interviews with such notables as L.A. Reid, Babyface, Ludacris, Jamie Foxx and Snoop Dogg about the invaluable business advice her dad has given out over the years. As Diddy attests in the film: “He became a mentor for us all.”
Feature image: NICOLE AVANT is a producer of The Black Godfather, the documentary about her father’s life.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of C Magazine.