You might have heard the name, if you subscribe to Billboard. Maybe you caught him on “Soul Train,” just once.
The last name he shared with Obama’s pick to be U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas, his daughter.
He got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He’s best friends with Quincy Jones.
And then a montage of the famous folks he’s linked to, revered by, people he helped — from Hank Aaron and Bill Withers to Bill Clinton, Andrew Young and Barack Obama, Jimmy Jam AND Terry Lewis, tells you who Clarence Avant –it’s pronounced “A-vant” — knows.
“The Black Godfather” they call him. They laugh; Jamie Foxx, Clinton, Lionel Ritchie, almost all of them with stories of some time “Clarence cussed me out.”
The man is a veritable Samuel L. when it comes to his generous use of the phrase that first references your mother and then what you do to her.
“The Black Godfather” is filmmaker Reginald Hudlin’s love letter to Avant, a major figure in music, politics, concert promotion, the star making machinery of Hollywood and the friendly ear and — when needed — megaphone with connections who can “get you paid.”
It’s a film of warm remembrances and salty anecdotes, deals made with just a phone call, “power” wielded almost always behind the scenes.
Greensboro born, raised in tiny Climax, N.C., Avant’s life is only shortchanged in Hudlin’s film — he did “Marshall” and “Boomerang” and a LOT of TV — in those early years. We get a hint of how he got out of rural N.C. during segregation, and no idea of how he landed his first showbiz gig or three.
But Avant went from running a club in South Jersey to handling much of the black talent for powerful, mob-connected agent Joseph Glazer’s portfolio at a time when black agents were as rare as black presidents.
Composer Lalo Schifrin is the first to give us a hint of Avant’s catholic tastes. If he’s an equal opportunity offender, sweetly and profanely insulting the high and mighty, from early on he made no distinction about talent. Being shipped to Hollywood to help jazz man Schifrin get his foot in the door composing for movies and TV (“Mission: Impossible,” scores upon scores of scores), he didn’t mind rattling cages as a short, well dressed black man representing a white jazz man.
When he started his own record label years later, he got in trouble with black radio stations for making guitarist Dennis Coffey an instrumental soul hits star. Coffey’s white, something that only became obvious when he hit “Soul Train.”
Avant dabbled in sports when he was asked to mediate getting Jim Brown to agree to do a documentary with TV producer David L. Wolper.
“He said, ‘You want to do movies?'” Brown remembers. “The Dirty Dozen” and a long screen career, after football, followed.
When Andrew Young decided to run for Congress in Georgia in the 1970s, Avant calls him up and offers to mount a benefit concert. Isaac Hayes and Rare Earth packed 30,000 in Young’s kick-off event.
When Hank Aaron was near to breaking the all time home run record, Avant offered to go to Atlanta’s most famous company and get the man a decent endorsement deal.
He marched into the president of Coca-Cola’s office in 1975, Aaron remembers, and says, sans introductions or any niceties — “N—–s drink a LOT of Coke!”
The man was Samuel L. Jackson before Samuel L. Jackson came along.
“I don’t have problems. I have friends.”
He signed 30something aircraft toilet builder Bill Withers to his start-up record label and made him a star. He signed Sixto Rodriguez, too. “Took 40 years” for the rest of the world to catch on to the voice, the poetry and the man who became “Sugar Man,” subject of a classic documentary and all-time great comeback story.
And on and on it goes, testimonial after testimonial, a man who often didn’t get paid for these “favors,” but who’d produce Michael Jackson’s “Bad” tour — even though he knew nothing about concert promotion, who strong-armed ABC, where he had a consultancy, into backing off letting Dick Clark run “Soul Train” out of business by launching the competing “Soul Unlimited” dance and music show.
“Godfather” they still called him, “Kingmaker.”
His status as a political fundraiser and voice in the ear of big time Democrats is verified by sit-down interviews with Clinton and Obama, Kamala Harris and Andrew Young.
Story after story backs up Bill Withers’ chuckling assessment of this man who has “never seen…with a tool…His tools are his ability to manipulate people. I don’t mean that in a bad way, necessarily. He puts people together.”
Avant laughs at all this, curses a little. Constantly. “Say Clarence Avant’s name and doors opened and the seas parted!” offends his modesty. “A celebrity’s celebrity” seems more than his due.
It’s a shame nobody thought to use the Yiddish word “chutzpah,” or the other one, “mensch,” because both fit the man to a T.
Here’s Quincy, Jones, rolling his eyes at every Avant pronouncement (they’re interviewed together), but offering, “He was fearless, man…He was in there calling Lew Wasserman (chairman of MCA) a mo-fo. And got away with it!”
There’s Snoop Dogg, getting choked up, Jamie Foxx attempting an impersonation, Hank Aaron the most bemused and relaxed we’ve ever seen him in an interview, David Geffen, Cicely Tyson, that daughter Nicole, who ruffled Dad’s feathers a little when she chose to campaign for this little known Senator from Illinois, rather than Dad’s friend Mrs. Clinton in 2008.
Of course, we’ve heard the story about the call Avant made that got Obama’s famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech moved to prime time. So he can’t have been too upset.
“You either join the country club or you remain a GD caddie,” Avant growls. “I’m not a f—–g caddie!”
“Life is about numbers…” he preaches, talking money. Always money.
For a man who’s self-made, come up from nothing to the very highest corridors of power, largely based on favors, advice and legs up he’s given others (as the film has it), he sure obsesses about money. Then we hear about the time he went broke.
A two hour film seems his due, although “The Black Godfather” is quite repetitive and lacks anything resembling a discouraging word. Even people he’s feuded with have nothing but sweet things to say about him.
He’s no “Supermensch,” to compare this to another “rare Hollywood man of integrity.” But Avant, like Shep Gordon, the always-helping/unfailingly kind agent of that documentary profile, reminds you that whatever you’ve done to get to that Oscar, Grammy, Emmy or Tony podium, or that Washington office, the person who encouraged you, helped you and kicked your behind when you needed it at whatever stage of your career you had it coming to you is worth remembering, too.
Seminal figures behind the scenes should get their due, too.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Cast: Clarence Avant, Quincy Jones, Hank Aaron, Kamala Harris, Bill Clinton, Snoop Dogg, Bill Withers, Lionel Ritchie, Jackie Avante, Jamie Foxx, Barack Obama, David Geffen
Credits: Directed by Reginald Hudlin. A Netflix Original.
Running time: 1:58