LOS ANGELES — Hank Aaron was closing in on Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs when the death threats started coming.
Thousands of letters, many of them racist, poured in weekly. Those folks didn’t want to see a black man break the record, which had stood since 1935. But there was also a call the superstar got before April 8, 1974, the day that Aaron hit his 715th home run off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing — a call from the Black Godfather.
That call changed everything.
The Black Godfather, known as such inside the tightknit music and entertainment fraternity, is music executive Clarence Avant, who quietly became one of the most influential dealmakers in the business over the past six decades.
Avant, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, had a varied career as a manager, the founder of two record labels and an occasional concert organizer and event producer. But his real influence came from advocating for black artists and advising them on how to get paid what they were worth.
Avant, now 88, would in many cases reach out to people he saw making moves and help them make better ones. When he saw what was happening with Aaron, he called then-U.S. Rep. Andrew Young (D-Ga.), whose political career he helped launch, and told him that he’d be calling Aaron to help formulate a plan for endorsements. The deals needed to be in motion before Aaron broke the record, Avant said.
And Avant got it done. How? He walked into the office of the president of Coca-Cola and, without any small talk or pretense, announced that “n—–s drink Coke too.”
“He is the godfather,” Aaron, 85, said in an interview with The Undefeated before the Monday night world premiere of The Black Godfather, a Netflix documentary that tells that story and more about how Avant connected people, closed deals and made sure that black creatives and athletes moving on from sports were getting their due. “He’s mine. I love him. He played [a role in] almost 90 percent of my career. He broke down doors to get [me] in to do certain things. I always say I am who I am because of Clarence Avant.”
The film will have a limited release in theaters and will begin streaming on Netflix on June 7. The story of Avant and the Coca-Cola deal is one of many shared in the documentary, which was directed by Reginald Hudlin. Monday’s premiere brought out an impressive amount of star power, nearly rivaling those featured in the film itself, which includes former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Also in the documentary are Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, music mogul Sean (Diddy) Combs, Bill Withers, Quincy Jones, Babyface, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and others. Much of the focus of the documentary — which is produced by Avant’s daughter, Nicole, an ambassador to the Bahamas in the Obama administration — is on Avant’s influence in the music industry. But he also made an impact in the political world, fundraising for Clinton and Young and advising them and Obama.
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On Monday, Avant gathered with Pharrell, Foxx, Ava DuVernay, Snoop Dogg, Chadwick Boseman, Leonardo DiCaprio and others inside a small theater on Paramount Pictures’ lot to watch a film that felt like a love letter to a man who has been shaping pop culture behind the scenes for decades. (And, in many ways, still is. Several people said in the documentary that they’re distraught at the idea of who they’ll call once Avant is gone.)
Nicole Avant says she’s been thinking of telling her father’s story since she was 8 years old. She remembers the day well; she was at a Dodgers game with dugout seats, gifts from Aaron.
“I was like, ‘How did you do business with Hank Aaron? Why did you do business with Hank Aaron?’ And he told me the story … of how he got him endorsement deals and why it was a big deal at the time. I knew when I left that day, something clicked in my brain and said there’s something different here. These stories need to be told. This is over 40-something years ago,” she said in an interview before the premiere.
That understanding that her father’s work transcended what he was doing in music and in Hollywood, and that it was her dad who helped three of the most prominent athletes of all time, made her as an adult want to bring this project to light.
“What’s so amazing,” Hudlin said before the premiere, “is that he did deals for Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, three of the greatest athletes ever in three different sports. … Here is this guy there at the crucial moment of them transforming their careers.
“He took Jim Brown from being a professional athlete to being an actor. At the time when Hank Aaron is worried about whether someone is going to shoot him on the field if he breaks Babe Ruth’s record, here’s this guy who got him endorsement deals when no one would touch him. With Muhammad Ali, here he is nearing the end of his career, he steps in and makes sure that Muhammad makes a transition into being a personality beyond simply being an athlete. Really important for all three of these great athletes in that really challenging time in their careers. Can you transition? Can you go to that next place? In all three cases, Clarence was there for them.”