Remembering My Dad, the Black Godfather
My father, the music executive Clarence Avant, shaped the sound of more than 50 years of American popular music and my life. But even he needed a little help from his friends
In the middle of August this year, three legends of the music industry died within 72 hours of each other: founder of A&M Records Jerry Moss; music lawyer Abe Somer; and my father, the “Black Godfather” himself, Clarence Avant. These three men helped define the recording industry of the past six decades, and what’s more, they were inseparable best friends.
Somer, Moss, and Avant met in New York City in the early 1960s, and in the six decades since, never left one another’s side, never once let their “soul contract” expire. The synchronicity of them passing in the space of just a few days makes me wonder if they simply couldn’t face being on the planet when one of the others was gone — that’s how close they were.
Abe Somer’s career includes almost too many highlights to list: He helped Lou Adler create the Monterey Pop Festival, where Somer’s guest that weekend, Clive Davis, heard Janis Joplin and subsequently signed her; Somer’s pal, Jerry Moss, signed Joe Cocker after Somer and Moss attended Woodstock together; and in 1971, Somer helped the Rolling Stones ink the then-biggest music contract ever, securing for the band a deal worth $1 million plus 10 percent royalty per album. The roster of other musicians whose careers he helped may never be matched: Beyond the Stones, there were the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, Neil Diamond, the Doors.
Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert had established A&M Records in 1962 (Abe Somer would go on to be A&M’s counsel for many years). Like Somer’s list of clients, Moss’ roll call of acts on A&M is Hall of Fame level: a very partial list would include the Carpenters, Cat Stevens, Supertramp, the Sex Pistols (for one week only!), Sting and the Police, Suzanne Vega, Janet Jackson, Bryan Adams, the Go-Go’s, Burt Bacharach, Barry White, Sheryl Crow … and on and on.
As for my dad, well, he was part manager, part mentor, part power broker; a consultant, consigliere, and counselor, and most of all, a trailblazer, helping the careers of the likes of Lalo Schifrin, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, L.A. Reid and Babyface, Alexander
O’Neal, Hank Aaron, Jim Brown, Andrew Young, Bill Clinton — like Somer and Moss, the recipients of his influence could fill this magazine’s pages.
My father first revealed the power of his famous negotiating skills in the late 1960s, when he brought Moss the chance to sign a legendary jazz producer, Creed Taylor, to A&M. Moss pointed out that Taylor was already signed elsewhere for $35,000 — comically ignoring that minor issue of an established contract, my father asked for a total package of $450,000 for Creed, and Moss ponied up.
Establishing his own label in 1969, Sussex Records (named, puckishly, from a mixture of “success” and “sex”), my father helped bring Bill Withers to prominence, as well as Sixto Rodriguez (who also, sadly, died recently), as well as a host of white acts, including Dennis Coffey and his seminal track, “Scorpio.” It was rare for a Black-run label to include white artists like Coffey, and the Gallery, who gave my father his first Number One hit (“It’s So Nice to Be With You”), but as he says in The Black Godfather, the Netflix documentary we made about his life, “Who gives a shit what he is? It’s music.”
But by the mid-Seventies my father would overextend himself, establishing the only Black-owned radio station in Los Angeles at the time, KAGB, but he didn’t know enough about radio to make it work. Money problems quickly piled up. He could no longer pay Withers, who left Sussex; this broke my father’s heart, and mine (I had already been devastated at Bill’s wedding when I, at age five, had realized he wouldn’t in fact be marrying me). My family faced losing our house, our entire world.
And that’s when my father would stumble upon his mantra:
“I don’t have problems — I have friends.”
One day in the middle of my father’s looming financial implosion, Moss called him.
“Come over,” he said, “I need you to look at a contract … ”
My father drove from our home in Trousdale Estates to the A&M lot, but
After he opened the envelope and saw the check, my father sat in his car sobbing; he didn’t have problems, he had friends.