Iconic sax man Clarence Clemons passed away from complications of a stroke on June 18, 2011.
If there was one member of The E Street band that came on larger than life, it was Clarence Clemons. A physically big man, the Baptist born Clemons was the focus on many of Bruce Springsteen’s most important albums. On Born To Run he provided memorable saxophone solos on the title track, “Thunder Road” and “Jungleland,” while Darkness On The Edge Of Town featured another notable solo on “Badlands.” The River saw Clemons feature on songs such as “The Ties That Bind,” “Sherry Darling,” “I Wanna Marry You” and “Independence Day” while Born In The U.S.A. saw solos on “Bobby Jean” and “I’m Goin’ Down.”
The story of how Clemons first met Springsteen has entered into New Jersey folklore. In concerts Springsteen would introduce “The E Street Shuffle” with a varying monologue about how they met and the event was also immortalized in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”
Clarence has told his version of the meeting many times and it is re-quoted here. “One night we were playing in Asbury Park. I’d heard The Bruce Springsteen Band was nearby at a club called The Student Prince and on a break between sets I walked over there. On-stage, Bruce used to tell different versions of this story but I’m a Baptist, remember, so this is the truth. A rainy, windy night it was, and when I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band was on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway. And maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, ‘I want to play with your band,’ and he said, ‘Sure, you do anything you want.’ The first song we did was an early version of ‘Spirit In The Night.’ Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything, we just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives. He was what I’d been searching for. In one way he was just a scrawny little kid. But he was a visionary. He wanted to follow his dream. So from then on I was part of history.”
Clarence Clemons remained with the E Street band until his death, but he also went on to add many other interesting aspects of a full life. He was an actor and his screen debut was in Martin Scorsese’s 1977 musical, New York, New York in which he played a trumpet player. He played one of the ‘Three Most Important People In The World’ in the 1989 comedy film Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In 1985, Clemons was a special guest star in a Diff’rent Strokes episode “So You Want to Be a Rock Star.” Other roles included an episode of Damon Wayans’ television show, My Wife And Kids, as a musician and performed an original composition, co-written with bassist Lynn Woolever, called “One Shadow In The Sun.” Clemons twice appeared as a Baltimore youth-program organizer in HBO’s crime drama The Wire.
Clemons’ side projects were numerous as well and his 1985 vocal duet with Jackson Browne on the hit single “You’re a Friend of Mine,” and his saxophone work on Aretha Franklin’s 1985 hit single “Freeway of Love” are just a couple of standout examples that showed that he could stand on his own two feet without the Boss.
I had the honor of reviewing his 2008 release, Brothers In Arms, recorded with his band, The Temple Of Soul. Diverse and different from anything your basic E Streeter might want to hear; Clemons and crew can literally be heard tearing it up, funk-rock hardcore and having a blast on that recording. Clarence relished these free-form projects and it had been said he was working on a follow up. Perhaps some of that might come to light in the near future.
I remember being in a band called the Fugitives in the early ‘80s and playing Clemons’ club, Big Man’s West in Red Bank, NJ. There was always a chance that Clarence himself would be there in the bar section with his friends. We would always look in through the glass, wondering what famous or cool musician might be in there with him and the possibility that they might come out and pay attention to us.
Actually, one night as we were in the middle of a Norman Nardini And The Tigers tune, Clarence did come out for a second. From the smile on his face, it looked like he got a kick out of the fact that these punk kids played “Ready Freddy” or “Get That Girl” in his room. Afterwards he came up and said we did a good job and took a minute to ask us about our influences. We were dumbstruck and extremely honored.
Friendly and amicable, this superstar, who had been a troubled youth counselor in the mid ‘60s, cared deeply about young musicians. But that’s how Clarence was, going even further by assisting educational charities such as Little Kids Rock, an organization that Clemons helped raise money to put musical instruments and curriculum into underfunded public schools across the country. Clemons was a selfless man who genuinely loved people, his life and the music that he was part of.
Clarence Clemons was 69 years old.
Bruce Springsteen has released this statement about Clarence Clemons’ death: “Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly 40 years. He was my great friend, my partner and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”