Clarence Clemons, sax player with the E Street Band, and a key part of Bruce Springsteen’s music for forty years, died last night in a Florida hospital following a stroke.
The Big Man, as he was known throughout the musical world, was an integral part of the E Street Band, contributing massively both on record and on stage. In any Springsteen concert it was a magical moment when Clarence moved forward to take his first solo of the night.
And when it came to the band introductions, Clarence was always left until last, a mark of respect from the Boss. The elaborate homage described him at various times as master of the universe, king of the world, the next President of the USA and, at Hampden Park, “the biggest Scotsman you will ever see”.
Clarence Clemons was born in Norfolk, Virginia to a southern family and grew up listening to gospel music. He started playing saxophone at the age of nine and quickly mastered the instrument. The young Clemons was a promising football player and attended Maryland State College on both music and football scholarships.
And the pros were looking at the big lineman. He had a trial lined up with the Cleveland Browns, but was involved in a car crash which ended his sporting dreams. Football’s loss was to be music’s gain.
It was in 1971 when, as Springsteen’s Tenth Avenue Freeze Out records it, “we made that change up town and the big man joined the band.”
The young Springsteen was already a fixture in the music scene of Asbury Park, New Jersey. One night, as he told the story on stage many times, the door blew off when he was playing at the Student Prince and the biggest man he had even seen walked in, dressed in a white suit. Clarence asked if he could join the band on stage, Bruce agreed.
And the rest is history. The two men formed a deep friendship that was to last forty years. And their musical collaboration was to change the face of rock music. In the scene everyone had a nickname. The Boss, Miami Steve (Van Zandt), Phantom Dan (Frederici). What else could Clemons be called but The Big Man?
From the very first record he recorded, 1972’s Greetings From Asbury Park, Clemons was by Springsteen’s side. His sax solos became a vital component of the E Street sound and it’s hard to imagine Thunder Road, Badlands, Born To Run, Jungleland or so many others without his contribution. For almost forty years he was by Springsteen’s right hand on stage, often playing the straight man. But always with a smile on his face.
Clemons was in demand outside of his main job. He played with, among others, the Grateful Dead, Aretha Franklin, Jackson Browne, Ringo Star and Lady Gaga, with whom he made his final appearance. He owned night clubs, acted in several films and tv programmes and wrote a book. He was married four times and is father to five sons.
In recent years health problems dogged Clemons. Both knees were replaced, he had back surgery and severe hip deterioration. But he continued to tour with the E Street Band and even when he was unable to walk he played sitting in a golden throne. Everyone knew he was in constant pain but nothing would stop the Big Man from doing what he did best.
And then came the stroke that was ultimately to prove fatal. At first it seemed like he would pull through, amazing his doctors by recovering from the paralysis that had affected his left side. But last night Clarence Clemons died.
Bruce Springsteen summed up his fiend’s contribution.
“His loss is immeasurable, and we’re honoured and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly 40 years,” the Boss said.
“He was my great friend and 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.
“His life, his memory and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”
Rest in peace, Clarence.
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