I always felt kinship with Clarence because it sometimes seemed like he and I were the only two black guys in the arena at Bruce Springsteen shows. We laughed about that once or twice.
In my encounters with him, he couldn't have been more gracious. The first time I played with the E Street Band was in Anaheim, California in 2008. Bruce had changed the key of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" before the show from what I had practiced, so it was going to be hard for me to sing. I didn't know what I was going to do. But when I walked on stage, Clarence made me feel right at home instantly, like, "This is going to be okay. Welcome, friend, to our stage." That was pretty awesome.
The last time I saw him might have been at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show in October 2009. At the time, he had some health problems with his knees, his back, but he sat there, looking absolutely regal and badass with that big cape, wide-brim hat and that beautiful smile. I was just like ‘Dude, you are a bad man' and he just laughed with that deep, resonant laugh.
When he played, you could hear both the fact that he's a bad man and a sweet soul. That came through in every breath he took through the sax. He was clearly channeling a lot of goodness through that saxophone. On the songs he wasn't playing saxophone, he'd be there playing that cowbell with a grin that could swallow the arena. He's like, "I am happy to be rocking you. I'll do it with a cowbell, with a tambourine, or with my surprisingly resonant and beautiful bass voice."
The composition of the E Street Band was as important as the notes that were played. Seeing the two best friends there, a black guy and a white guy, made a very strong statement. And through the Eighties, when Michael Jackson was one of the only African-American guys on MTV, there was also Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with Clarence. He was very important for so many reasons beyond his musical contributions to that band.
From the apocryphal lightning storm entrance to that club in Asbury Park where he met Bruce in the early Seventies to having a smash hit on the pop charts the week that he passed, that's a pretty solid career right there. Well done, Clarence. You went out on top.
NEXT: Bob Weir
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