(August 21, 2023).  Clarence Avant, the beloved music entrepreneur who started several record labels and was known by some in the industry as “The Black Godfather,” died August 13 in Los Angeles.  He was 92 years old.

The late industry mogul was a driving force who was credited not only with starting his own many business ventures but inspiring others—like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, L.A. Reid & Babyface, Russell Simmons, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and others—to start theirs.  Many of his former colleagues, artists and business partners have sung his praises in the week since his passing, which came less than two years after the tragic death of his wife of 54 years, Jackie, who was murdered during a home invasion in December 2021.

Avant, who was a shrewd deal-maker (he believed in high asking-prices when entering into a negotiation) and pioneering executive, brokered the first deal between a Black-owned label—Venture Records—and a major partner (MGM Records) and founded two labels on his own before becoming Chairman of the most famous Black music label of the 20th century—Motown Records.  

The two labels he started were Sussex Records—founded in 1971 and home to artists like Bill Withers, Gallery, and Dennis Coffey—and Tabu Records, the label that thrived in the 1980s and launched the careers of artists like the S.O.S. Band, Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal.

Sussex Records, which Avant joked was a loose portmanteau of “success” and “sex,” folded in the mid-1970s after the label couldn’t make enough money to pay for its few artists, many employees, and Avant’s various other business ventures (including a radio station—KAGB-FM— he’d later regret purchasing through his Avant Garde Broadcasting company).

It was the loss of Sussex and its biggest artist—Withers—that led to the founding of Tabu.

Avant credited a tearful meeting with Walter Yentnikoff—then president of CBS Records (later Sony Music Entertainment) who had just signed Withers away from Sussex—with inspiring him to start his second label.

In a 75th birthday tribute to him that ran in the February 11, 2006, issue of Billboard Magazine, Avant told of an emotional meeting with Yentnikoff in which the CBS Records icon undiplomatically asked him: “What the fuck are you crying for?  If you’re gonna cry, get the fuck out of here!”

After both men calmed down, Yentnikoff called Avant back into his office and said: “Schmuck, schmuck. So you lose a guy (Withers).  Start another goddamn label.”

So Avant did…and Tabu Records was born (first under RCA Records and later, most prolifically, under CBS Records’ distribution).

Although the label had signed several artists including names like Lalo Schifrin (a Grammy-winning Argentine artist who composed several TV and movie themes and scores), Woods Empire, Manfredo Fest, General Caine, and Sharon Ridley, Tabu’s chart impact started with a disco/soul group out of Detroit called Brainstorm, which scored the label’s first major entry in early 1977 with “Wake Up and Be Somebody.”  It was a minor chart success (No. 48 soul, No. 86 pop).

The band struggled to generate any big hits—they never made the pop chart again and their next single, “Lovin’ Is Really My Game,” became their only one to crack the top 40 of the Soul/R&B chart (No. 14 in 1977).

Their fifth and final chart single, “You Put A Charge In My Life,” peaked at a disappointing No. 84 on the Hot Soul Singles list in late 1979.  Ironically, it was the first single I purchased on the Tabu label (after first hearing it as a 13-year-old lad on Philly’s WDAS-FM, one of the nation’s flagship soul stations at the time).

It was during the following year that Tabu scored its first real success with S.O.S. Band’s “Take Your Time (Do It Right),” which was an out-of-the-box, post-disco smash that sold two million copies and spent five weeks at No. 1 soul (before crossing over to No. 3 on the pop chart in summer 1980).

Over the next two years, however, it appeared that S.O.S. Band was headed for the same fate as Brainstorm, with the group producing no follow-ups that came anywhere close to the success of “Take Your Time.”

A chance hit single in 1982, written and produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis called “High Hopes,” turned the group’s (and the label’s) fortunes around.  That song’s success (No. 25 R&B) led to a call from Avant to Jam & Lewis, at the time still members of Prince’s protégé band The Time, to produce the S.O.S. Band’s entire next album.

That album—their fourth called On The Rise—included the 1983 smashes “Just Be Good To Me” (No. 2 R&B, No. 55 pop) and “Tell Me If You Still Care” (No. 5 R&B, No. 65 pop).

The success of the gold-certified On The Rise and its hit singles led to Avant retaining Jam & Lewis, who’d just been fired by Prince for missing a flight to a gig for The Time while producing the S.O.S. Band album, as in-house producers. 

In turn, Jam & Lewis brought to Avant Alexander O’Neal, former band mate of the The Time, and Cherrelle.  The two up-and-coming singers signed with Tabu and began a streak of hit singles that, along with those by S.O.S. Band, spanned the entire 1980s decade.

Those three recording acts made Tabu Records Avant’s most successful music venture…thanks to Jam & Lewis’ exquisite songwriting and production talents.  And because Avant wasn’t selfish, his biggest moneymakers were allowed to have outside projects—which Jam & Lewis did with non-Tabu acts like Janet Jackson, Cheryl Lynn, Human League, Karyn White and so many others.

Though only a handful of Tabu’s singles (five exactly) crossed over to the pop top 40, if you were a Black child of the 1970s and early ‘80s, you likely came of age jamming to one of the many R&B chart hits that Tabu generated under Avant’s leadership.  I know I did!

Tabu Records eventually moved its distribution from CBS in 1991 to other labels and was dissolved by Polygram Records in 1999 after Avant was Chairman of Motown Records (which Polygram also owned at the time).  

Avant’s passing at age 92 last week was not shocking, especially with the tragic loss of his beloved wife Jackie less than two years ago.

But it did trigger memories of one of the most successful Black-owned labels of a generation, to go along with the many other successes—often behind the scenes—Avant had a hand in creating.

As the great deal-maker put it in Billboard when addressing the accuracy of his “Godfather” nickname, “I certainly didn’t get paid maybe the way I should have, because I didn’t ask anyone for 10%, 12% (of whatever they made). Maybe I should have…I’d be a rich guy sitting in Bel Air.”

He continued, “I did it because there was no one else out here doing it. Black folks (in this industry) had never had anyone they could talk to…My doors were open.  And I got involved.”

Clarence Avant (1931-2023) was a “rich guy” in many ways…a beloved and respected leader who will surely be missed and whose legacy will forever remain.

Below, I’ve compiled what I believe are Tabu Records’ 30 greatest hits.  How many of these bring back great memories for you?

30. “Wake Up and Be Somebody” – Brainstorm (1977; No. 48 Soul, No. 86 pop)

29. “Even When You Sleep” – S.O.S. Band (1986; No 34 Soul)

28. “Fragile…Handle With Care” – Cherrelle (1984; No. 37 Soul)

27. “Borrowed Love” – S.O.S. Band (1986; No. 14 Soul)

26. “High Hopes” – S.O.S. Band (1982; No. 25 Soul)

25. “Sunshine” – Alexander O’Neal (1987; not released as a single)

24. “Artificial Heart” – Cherrelle (1986; No. 18 Soul)

23. “Lovin’ Is Really My Game” – Brainstorm (1977; No. 14 Soul)

22. “All True Man” – Alexander O’Neal (1991; No. 5 Soul, No. 43 Pop)

21. “A Broken Heart Can Mend” – Alexander O’Neal (1985; No. 62 Soul)

20. “You Look Good To Me” – Cherrelle (1985; No. 26 Soul)

19. “Never Knew Love Like This” – Alexander O’Neal ft. Cherrelle (1988; No. 2 Soul, No. 28 Pop)

18. “Weekend Girl” – S.O.S. Band (1985; No. 40 Soul)

17. “What’s Missing” – Alexander O’Neal (1986; No. 8 Soul)

16. “No One’s Gonna Love You” – S.O.S. Band (1984; No. 15 Soul; No.102 Pop)

15. “Innocent” – Alexander O’Neal (1985; No. 11 Soul, No. 101 Pop)

14. “Changin’” – Sharon Ridley (1978, did not chart)

13. “Just The Way You Like It” – S.O.S. Band (1984; No. 6 Soul; No. 64 Pop)

12. “You Put A Charge In My Life” – Brainstorm (1979; No. 84 Soul)

11. “Fake” – Alexander O’Neal (1987; No. 1 Soul, No. 25 Pop)

10. “Criticize” – Alexander O’Neal (1987; No. 4 Soul, No. 70 Pop)

9. “Affair” – Cherrelle (1989; No. 4 Soul)

8. “If You Were Here Tonight” – Alexander O’Neal (1985; No. 17 Soul)

7. “Everything I Miss At Home” – Cherrelle (1988; No. 1 Soul)

6. “The Finest” – S.O.S. Band (1986; No. 2 Soul; No. 44 Pop)

5. “Tell Me If You Still Care” – S.O.S. Band (1983; No. 5 Soul; No. 65 Pop)

4. “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On” – Cherrelle (1984; No. 8 Soul; No. 79 Pop)

3. “Just Be Good To Me” – S.O.S. Band (1983; No. 2 Soul; No. 55 Pop)

2. “Saturday Love” – Cherrelle & Alexander O’Neal (1986; No. 2 Soul, No. 26 Pop)

1. “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” – S.O.S. Band (1980; No. 1 Soul; No. 3 Pop)

R.I.P. Clarence Alexander Avant (February 25, 1931 – August 13, 2023). 


DJRob (he/him/his), whose first Tabu Records purchase was Brainstorm’s “You Put A Charge In My Life” in 1979, which topped his personal Weekly Top 75 that October, is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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2 thoughts on “Tribute: The late Clarence Avant’s Tabu Records was a cornerstone of my youth; here are Tabu’s 30 greatest jams!”
  1. Tabu records defined my young adult life. So much good music from that era alone. I remember the big gorilla break dancing in the Cherelle video…fun times!

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