Clarence Clemons, The Final Bow

“In the mental calmness of a spiritual life, I have found that the answers to the whys in our lives are able to come to you. In my music I find the same thing.” —Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons— Bruce Springsteen’s “Big Man” on the sax— has taken his final bow. Clemons, who died Saturday at age 69 in Florida after suffering a stroke on June 12th played and toured with The Boss for four decades. To say he was a remarkable talent wouldn’t be enough to capture his magic. I remember being 3 rows back at the Born in The USA Tour. There was an enthusiasm that washed over the audience with a thunderous presence. And Clarence Clemons was larger than life, belting out his finest on the sax. Some say Clarence was at his best in the 1980s during the  Born in the U.S.A. tour. None of us would ever forget the great introduction that Bruce gave Clarence. “A man I have run out of words to describe. He’s the king of the world, the emperor (or master) of the universe.”

Hulking well over six feet tall, Mr. Clemons fully justified his moniker, especially in comparison to the much shorter Mr. Springsteen, and his looping tenor sax sound was a distinctive feature of nearly all the E Street Band’s songs. Standards like “Born To Run,” Jungleland,” and “Badlands” featured him prominently. Mr. Clemons was the oldest original E Streeter, and Mr. Springsteen would introduce him last, usually by saying, “The biggest man you ever seen…”

The son of a Norwalk, Va., fish seller and grandson of a Baptist preacher, Mr. Clemons grew up helping his dad deliver fish while practicing his saxophone in the back room of the store. He played in the high school jazz band and attended Maryland State College on a football scholarship. A potential career with the Cleveland Browns ended due to injuries in a car crash. In the 1960s, Mr. Clemons worked as a counselor in a group home for emotionally disturbed children in Newark, N.J., and spent his free time playing with rock bands on the Jersey shore.

The story of how Mr. Clemons came to join the E Street Band was part of the group’s mythology, told over and again. In 1971, Mr. Clemons was playing with a cover band in Asbury Park. After the show, he walked through a storm to a nearby club where Mr. Springsteen was playing. “When I opened the door it blew off the hinges and flew down the street,” Mr. Clemons wrote in a 2009 memoir, “Big Man.” He proceeded to sit in with Mr. Springsteen’s band, starting with the song “Spirit in the Night.” The story took on a completely different tinge in the song “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” where Mr. Clemon’s arrival heralds the start of the band’s success: “When the change was made uptown/And the Big Man joined the band/From the coastline to the city/All the little pretties raise their hands.”

The song appeared on Mr. Springsteen’s break-out “Born to Run” album in 1975. On the cover the singer playfully leans on Mr. Clemons’s ample shoulder. “Sometimes you can’t tell where Clarence ends and his sax begins,” Mr. Springsteen said in Peter Gambaccini’s 1985 Springsteen biography. Between tours with Mr. Springsteen, Mr. Clemons organized his own band, the Red Bank Rockers. He toured with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, and the Jerry Garcia Band. He was in demand as a sideman for talents as diverse as Aretha Franklin and Janis Ian. Most recently, he appeared on Lady Gaga’s latest album including a solo on the hit “Edge of Glory.” The album prompted some critics to speculate that a rock music saxophone revival lay around the corner… but it wasn’t meant to be.

Goodbye Clarence, your music will live within each of us forever.


~ by upbeatmag on June 19, 2011.

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