Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, whose amazing playing, soul-rooted style and brotherly relationship with Mr. Springsteen made him one of rock’s most beloved sidemen, died on Saturday at a hospital in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 69.
The cause was complications of a stroke he suffered last Sunday at his home in Singer Island, Fla.
My Great Friend, My Partner
From The New York Times:
In a statement released Saturday night, Mr. Springsteen called Mr. Clemons “my great friend, my partner.”
“With Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music,” he added. “His life, his memory and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”
I only heard Clemons live once. In September, 1985, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Springsteen and the E Street Band, headliners, didn’t appear on stage until midnight. I was exhausted, ready to leave, but then Springsteen and Clemons burst onto the stage, and I was riveted, wide-awake.
Two hours later, I left the concert buzzing with life, and at eight next morning I was teaching ninth-grade English with a new excitement and passion, lit up in me by listening to that remarkable duo: The Big Man and The Boss. Somehow, I just didn’t need to sleep that night.
And Now The Big Man Is Gone
Clarence Clemons was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the oldest of the three children of Thelma Clemons and her husband Clarence, who owned a fish market. His parents were regular churchgoers, and the young Clarence began his musical career with the local church choir and in a gospel group.
He began playing the saxophone after his father bought him an alto instrument one Christmas, and enrolled him in music lessons at a local college. He eventually switched to the tenor sax, after listening to King Curtis.
Later he won a football scholarship to Maryland State College, but had to give up on his hopes when he was involved in a serious car accident.
Clemson Meets Springsteen
Here’s how The New York Times recounts Clemson’s first meeting with Mr. Springsteen:
fMr. Clemons’s first encounter with Mr. Springsteen has become E Street Band lore. In most tellings, a lightning storm was rolling through Asbury Park one night in 1971 while Mr. Springsteen was playing a gig there. As Mr. Clemons entered the bar, the wind blew the door off its hinges, and Mr. Springsteen was startled by the towering shadow at the door. Then Mr. Clemons invited himself onstage to play along, and they clicked.
“I swear I will never forget that moment,” Mr. Clemons later recalled in an interview. “I felt like I was supposed to be there. It was a magical moment. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and we fell in love. And that’s still there.”
From the beginnings of the E Street Band in 1972, Mr. Clemons played a central part in Mr. Springsteen’s music, complementing the group’s electric guitar and driving rhythms in songs like “Born to Run” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” with muscular, melodic saxophone hooks that echoed doo-wop, soul and early rock ’n’ roll.
Mr. Clemons also became something of a celebrity in his own right: he acted in Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” and other films, and on television shows like “Diff’rent Strokes,” and he jammed with President Bill Clinton at the 1993 inaugural ball.
In 1989 Springsteen decided to disband his group.
Clemons Formed The Red Bank Rockers
From The Guardian:
Clemons was shocked, though for some years he had been been pursuing musical directions of his own. Indeed, when he received Springsteen’s call, he was touring in Japan with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, which included Joe Walsh, Billy Preston, Dr John and other luminaries, and he would also tour with the Grateful Dead.
Clemons had formed his own band, the Red Bank Rockers, in 1981, and released the album Rescue with them in 1983. He sang a duet with Jackson Browne on the Top 20 hit You’re a Friend of Mine, and played the sax on Aretha Franklin’s 1985 hit Freeway of Love. He also made three solo albums during the 80s, and ran a New Jersey nightclub called Big Man’s West.
In 1999, Springsteen changed his mind and the E Street Band played a reunion tour. They were also prominent on the Vote for Change tour in 2004, which aimed (unsuccessfully) to put a Democrat in the White House. Away from the E Street Band, Clemons found time to perform with the band Temple of Soul.
More recently, Clemons played on several tracks from Lady Gaga’s 2011 album Born This Way, and performed with her on the TV show American Idol.
Clemons is survived by his sons Clarence, Charles, Christopher and Jarod, and his fifth wife, Victoria.
Clarence Anicholas Clemons, saxophonist, born 11 January 1942; died 18 June 2011.
If you’re bummed out that you’ll never hear Clemons play “Jungleland” again, here he is, from June 7, 2009:
Photo Credit: manu_gt500 via Creative Commons