GREENSBORO — The journey of Clarence Avant from high school dropout to music industry power broker to one of the newest inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame began in the city’s segregated hospital.
In a life spent shaping and molding artists, and an industry in the process, Avant has collected a number of top-shelf awards despite the odds — and times — against him.
It’s probably hard to say where his induction into the Hall of Fame ranks among so many other achievements, but it’s fitting and underscores yet again his enduring influence.
That he’s being inducted with the likes of Tina Turner, Carole King and Jay-Z just cements that much more his status among the greats.
Even though he doesn’t carry himself that way. Still.
Avant is as Greensboro as L. Richardson Hospital, Dudley High School and the fields of the Goshen community, where neighborhood kids honed their skills with a baseball and bat and a few went to the major league.
“I guess I’ve been a lucky so-and-so,” said Avant, who never sang or played an instrument on a record, with a laugh during a telephone call to his Beverly Hills home after the announcement earlier this week.
Avant, 90, a chairman of Motown records who is known around the music industry as the Black Godfather, will receive the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Ahmet Ertegun Award for non-performers because of his influence on music and culture.
Previous winners in that category are some industry heavy hitters: Dick Clark of “American Bandstand” (1993), “Rolling Stone” co-founder Jann Wenner (2017) and mega-producer Clive Davis (2000).
Avant, who can be soft-spoken and saucy, slipping in profanity at times, also has decades of letters from some of the most powerful figures in entertainment, sports and politics who have sought his counsel at pivotal moments. Even now. He plans to donate some of a vast collection of papers and photos to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.
For his 75th birthday in February 2006, no less an entertainment powerhouse than Oprah Winfrey bought a full-page ad in Billboard magazine, the music industry trade journal. So, too, did record industry moguls Quincy Jones, David Geffen and Davis.
The pioneering music executive, unofficial presidential advisor and tireless advocate of opportunities, especially for African Americans within business and beyond, turned 75 to cover-to-cover applause in that issue. He gained his reputation in the industry before he was affiliated with Motown — which he says was his only big job.
“Everybody has been by Clarence’s desk, if they’re smart,” Jones wrote once with “everybody” having included a young Barbra Streisand.
That’s no surprise to those who know Avant best.
“Clarence is a legend and a lot of people don’t know about all the work he’s done,” said Melvin “Skip” Alston, who is co-founder of the civil rights center and chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
Avant not only rubbed shoulders but formed humanitarian bonds with Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young to name a few.
An accolade he holds dearly is the 2007 Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award given by the NAACP.
Earlier this week, he said he hasn’t always been right and that fact was part of an inside joke with then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.
“I told Obama, ‘You don’t have a snowball’s chance in ‘west hell’ of being president,’” Avant recalled saying to the then-presidential candidate, only partly joking.
“I’m going to need you,” Obama replied with his signature broad smile.
Then Obama won.
“Every time I would see him after I would say, ‘Obama ...’ He would say, ‘No, Mr. President.”
In addition to the Obama story, Avant’s got one for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. There’s Hank Aaron and Muhammad Ali stories, too.
Recently, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited the museum in April as part of a stop to talk about the Biden Administration’s recovery effort, Alston mentioned that they had a mutual friend.
“She nearly fell over,” recalled Alston of the mention of Avant, who received the museum’s Trailblazer Award in 2014. “She said, ‘Clarence is my mentor.’”
Avant says just a couple of Black politicians had been able to win statewide public office in California so when she ran for attorney general, he impressed upon her the importance of seemingly simple moves, such as visiting small towns — and do it as if she were on a mission.
The hanging of 14-year-old Emmit Till in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman began his foray into politics and social justice.
He’s toyed with the idea of writing a book about his life, but said it wouldn’t be worth his time.
“Who the hell was going to believe all of that?” he asked.
Much of Avant’s life is on display in the 2019 Netflix documentary, “Black Godfather,” which includes photos and video clips of prominent people giving their take on how he earned the name.
Greensboro natives Gwen Blount Adolph, now an attorney in New York, and Debra Lee, the former chairman and CEO of Black Entertainment Television, sat together at the Netflix premiere at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles with an audience that ranged from singer and actress Queen Latifah to sitcom king Normal Lear to late-night host Jimmy Kimmel.
“He has carried Greensboro with him every step of the way, and now he’s carrying Greensboro into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” Adolph said this week. “We should all be proud.”
On Instagram, Lee called Avant a dear friend and mentor to so many in the entertainment industry.
“(The Netflix documentary) should be required viewing for anyone in the music, TV or film business,” Lee said.
Avant has been recognized for breaking racially restrictive barriers that many say carved a path for other artists and entrepreneurs to follow.
“You only find one of those people,” the late actress Cicely Tyson, also featured in the documentary, said of Avant’s ability to get things done.
Avant launched careers, but also, as is told in the film, helped companies like MCA segue into the Black music business.
For Avant, it was about ensuring fairness.
“He said, ‘Would you like any help putting MCA into the Black music business?’” one executive said with a laugh in the documentary, “I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Well, that’s good, because I was going to tell you anyway.’”
The documentary paints Avant as a man of wisdom, connections and a good sense of direction about life, which others have come to appreciate.
“I certainly learned a thing or two at home,” Avant said this week of growing up in the greater Greensboro area.
The oldest of eight siblings born to Gertrude Avant, a domestic worker, his family lived in a small, tidy house in Climax, which is in the shadow of Greensboro.
A young Clarence Avant looked up at his mother once and quipped that the “F” on his report card in her hands stood for “fine.”
“She got one of those switches and closed the kitchen door so I couldn’t get away and wore me out,” Avant said with a laugh.
He also recalled the Black and white neighborhood children playing together with no thought to skin color even though they attended segregated schools.
At the Goshen School Reunion in 2006, where he received a key to the city from Mayor Pro-Tem Yvonne Johnson, Avant passed the roster of teachers, still hung in a hallway, and stopped at the door of favorite first-grade teacher Rena Bullock.
“Lord, have mercy. This brings back memories,” he said back then, stroking his beard.
Martha Donnell was a year ahead of Avant at the time but still remembered his speaking part in the school play — “Aaron Slick from Pumpkin Quick.”
“That’s where he got his start,” said Donnell, who died in 2019, at the time. “The music part we didn’t know about — not until much later.”
But as was common to the time, he attended the segregated Goshen until eighth grade, and later Dudley High School, which drew its rolls from Black children from a large geographic area.
“I can’t help but to think this: Through it all, if you just use your gifts and talents that were given to you, nothing is impossible,” Johnson said after the Hall of Fame announcement. “I could list you a plethora of odds that might have been against him, but he used what he had and did well.”
Avant dropped out of Dudley after his sophomore year and moved to New Jersey, where he had extended family and held a succession of jobs, from stock clerk at Macy’s to an office boy for a legal listing service.
While working for the listing service he heard on the radio about the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
“I went totally nuts, talking out loud about hating white people,” Avant said.
His white boss called Avant to his office. Avant thought he was being fired.
Instead, he found out he wasn’t the only one angry.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to fire you. I understand your outburst,’” Avant recalled.
With that, he was reminded of the depth of humanity and decided to make a difference.
But Avant wasn’t one for the civil rights marches that would come.
“If somebody hit me, I was going to hit them back,” Avant said. “So I raised money.”
He would later join the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and decades later is now in the NAACP Hall of Fame.
Avant, who married his wife, Jacqueline “Jackie” Gray in 1967, would get his first break in the music business after running a nightclub.
Years later, he would manage acts — including R&B great Little Willie John, jazz singer Sarah Vaughan and Argentine pianist-composer Lalo Schifrin, known for the “Mission Impossible” theme.
He started Sussex Records in 1969, which included a young artist named Bill Withers — of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me” fame.
Avant dabbled in radio, creating the first African-American owned FM radio station in metropolitan Los Angeles in 1973.
The record company was one of several business ventures that didn’t end well, leaving him bankrupt.
“Back in those days, you had to hustle,” Avant said. “You know a plane in the sky looking for a place to land? I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Avant started a more successful company, Tabu Records, in 1976 and later chaired Motown Records in 1993.
He also served on the California state school board and got federal urban renewal grants to build in economically blighted areas.
He was often called “Godfather” because of his reputation for mentoring generations of performers. Considered one of the few Black power brokers of his era, he has been praised for his business acumen.
“He didn’t try to go it alone,” son Alex said. “He tried to take as many people with him. And according to the stories I heard growing up, even pushing some people along the way.”
Avant was involved with internet-based ventures aimed at African Americans as early as the 1990s because he saw too few minorities taking advantage of the marriage of music and technology. Blacks may be artists but weren’t focused on the upper power structure of the industry, he said.
In the Netflix documentary, Avant is asked if he remembers the first time someone called him “Godfather.”
“People have called me that,” said Avant matter-of-factly. “They also call me a son-of-a-(expletive). So what?”
Avant, who still has cousins in the area, keeps in touch with Alston, who he befriended through the museum and, like him, is a longtime member of the NAACP.
When Alston and his wife were in Las Vegas in 2019, Avant asked him to take a detour through Beverly Hills and the two went through old letters and photos for a possible museum exhibit. Avant put them up in the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Avant has also helped the nonprofit museum open lines of communications with high-profile recipients the group has wanted to honor during its annual awards gala.
As he has grown in stature and accepted top honors from various groups, Avant hasn’t forgotten his roots.
He says that N.C. A&T has invited him three times as a graduation speaker — the last time sending him a cap and gown. He missed that opportunity, he says, because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“I think a lot about that place,” Avant said.
Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.