Clarence Clemons, the legendary saxophonist in the E Street Band who played alongside Bruce Springsteen for the past 40 years, died on June 18th from complications from a stroke. He was 69.
Clemons - known affectionately to fan and friends as the Big Man - was the backbone of the E Street Band. He played on countless Springsteen songs, including "Born To Run," "Thunder Road," "Jungleland," "Dancing In The Dark," "Badlands" and "The Promised Land." "He always lifted me up," Springsteen said in 1999. "Way, way, way up. Together we told a story of the possibilities of friendship, a story older than the ones that I was writing and a story I could never have told without him at my side."
So much has been said and written about the stormy night in Asbury Park in 1971 when Clemons met Springsteen that it's hard to separate fact from myth. At the time, Springsteen was a struggling musician playing the New Jersey bar circuit and Clemons was a former college football player who spent his nights playing sax in clubs on the shore. "It was raining and thundering like a motherfucker," Clemons wrote in his memoir. "When I opened the door it blew off the hinges and flew down the street…Somebody introduced me to Bruce, everybody knew everybody, and he asked me if I wanted to sit in."
During his 1999 induction speech into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Springsteen recalled that 1971 night in Asbury Park. "He got up on stage (and) a sound came out of his horn that seemed to rattle the glasses behind the bar, and threatened to blow out the back wall," Springsteen said. "The door literally blew off the club in a storm that night, and I knew I'd found my sax player. But there was something else, something happened when we stood side by side. Some energy, some unspoken story. For 15 years Clarence has been a source of myth and light and enormous strength for me on stage. He has filled my heart so many night – so many nights – and I love it when he wraps me in those arms at the end of the night. That night we first stood together, I looked over at C and it looked like his head reached into the clouds. And I felt like a mere mortal scurrying upon the earth, you know."
Clemons grew up in Norfolk, Virginia and attended Maryland State College, where he was a star football player. He had a tryout lined up for the Cleveland Browns in 1968, but the day before the accelerator jammed on his blue Buick Riviera. "The car shot up to a hundred miles an hour in seconds," Clemons wrote in his 2009 memoir Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales. "I tried the emergency brake, but nothing happened. Finally I took my eyes off the road and bent down to physically lift the gas pedal. It was a desperate move and it failed. When I got back up behind the wheel I was inches away from the tree."
It was a miracle he survived the crash, but it damaged his knee and permanently ended his football career. Over the next few years he worked as a youth counselor for troubled kids around Newark, New Jersey. At night, he played sax in the many bars off the Jersey Shore – and in 1971 he became part of Springsteen's backing band, who weren't yet known as the E Street Band. The saxophone was a staple of many early rock bands, but after the British Invasion it fell out of vogue. The E Street Band revived that 1950s R&B spirit in rock and roll, and Clemons provided a rich, soulful texture that shaped Springsteen's music for over three decades.
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