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.
Before Born To Run turned Springsteen into a superstar, the group faced some lean times. Springsteen’s first two albums – Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle – failed to find a mass audience. In 1974, drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter and keyboardist David Sancious quit the band to form the jazz fusion project Tone. Clemons, who was roommates with Carter, was stunned by the defection, but refused to join them on their project, believing firmly in Springsteen’s music. On Springsteen’s third album, Born to Run, Clemons played two of his most memorable parts on “Thunder Road” and the title track, but his epic solo on the album’s final track, “Jungleland,” stands as his greatest recorded moment.
Clemons said that he spent 18 hours working on the solo with Springsteen. “The first time I heard the way Bruce built it I couldn’t talk,” Clemons says in his memoir. “It spoke to my soul. It was the perfect combination of our talents and our abilities and our deep mystical connection. He took what I had played, all those little pieces, and married them to what he heard in his heart, and then put it together in a way that’s timeless. Every time I play it I feel that it represents our musical partnership in a way that’s beyond words. To me that solo sounds like love.”
He’s the only member of the band on the cover of Born To Run with Springsteen. “When you open it up and see Clarence and me together, the album begins to work its magic,” Springsteen wrote in Clemons’ memoir. “Who are these guys? Where did they come from? What is the joke they are sharing? A friendship and a narrative steeped in the complicated history of American begins to work and there is music already in the air.”
The huge success of Born To Run turned Springsteen and the E Street Band into superstars. Over the next two decades, Clemons became the most recognizable member of the group – thanks to his massive size, equally huge personality and his onstage role as Springsteen’s foil. During the nightly band introductions, Springsteen always saved Clemons for the end. “He crawled out of his little baby crib when he was two years old and found a dusty saxophone in the closet,” Springsteen said during a 2000 concert. “I´m talking about the rest is rock and roll, I’m talking about the Minister of soul, the secretary of the brotherhood, the emperor of E Street? Do I even have to say his name? Do I even have to SAY his name!”
“What he brought to the E Street Band was the power of friendship, redemptive love and inclusion,” Jackson Browne tells Rolling Stone. “He played such super-charged sax. It made for such emotional, cathartic moments in Bruce’s songs. So really powerful. He had such command of that instrument, and it added to the power of what Bruce was doing. It brought the music back to the origins of rock & roll. It’s almost hard to imagine that music without him.”
In the 1980s, Clemons began a second career as an actor – appearing in TV shows like Diff’rent Strokes and movies such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. He also scored a solo hit in 1985 with “You’re A Friend Of Mine,” a duet with Jackson Browne. He was on tour with Ringo Starr’s All Star Band in 1989 when Springsteen phoned him to say he was breaking up the band. “I didn’t speak or even attempt to interject,” Clemons wrote in his memoir. “I got very quiet and stopped smiling. In fact, it looked to Ringo like I was being told about somebody dying.”
The E Street Band reformed in 1999 for a reunion tour, and over the next decade they recorded three albums with Springsteen and toured regularly. Clemons loved being back on the road, even as he battled chronic pain in his joints, undergoing numerous surgeries for knee and hip replacements. When the band toured in 2007, Clemons began sitting during much of the show. Over the next two years, Springsteen and The E Street band toured extensively – and although Clemons continued to perform brilliantly, it was clear the road was taking its toll on him.
“That last tour was hell,” Clemons told Rolling Stone in February. “Pure hell.” When it ended in November of 2009 Clemons had both knees replaced and underwent spinal fusion surgery. “It made me stronger,” he told Rolling Stone. “For the past year I’ve been in physical therapy a few days a week working my ass off to get back in shape. I’m walking better now, though I still use a cane.”
“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,” says Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. “I last saw him in 2009 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th Anniversary concerts. At the time he had some health problems with his knees, his back, but he still just sat there absolutely regal and badass with that big cape and wide brim hat and teeth glowing and that beautiful smile….He has a huge catalog of awesome jams that we can enjoy as long as there’s music.”
Clemons was recovering at his Florida home this past January when he got an unexpected call from Lady Gaga’s manager. “They said to me, ‘Lady Gaga wants you to play on her album,'” Clemons told Rolling Stone. “This is on a Friday afternoon at 4:00 pm. I said, ‘When do you want me to do it? I’m free Monday or Tuesday.’ They go, “No, she needs you RIGHT NOW in New York City.” Clemons rushed to the airport and got on the next flight to New York. “She came running down the hall,” Clemons said. “She was like ‘Big Man!’ I was like, ‘Holy shit, man. Damn!'” Over just three hours, Clemons played sax on “Edge of Glory” and “Hair.” “It was wild,” he said. “I was so excited. I’m a Gaga-ite.”
Gaga recruited Clemons to appear in her video of “Edge of Glory,” and he performed the track live with her on the season finale of American Idol in May. When he spoke to Rolling Stone earlier this year, Clemons said he was looking forward to a future E Street Band tour – and that he couldn’t imagine staying off the road. “As long as my mouth, hands and brain still work I’ll be out there doing it,” he said. “I’m going to keep going ’til I’m not there anymore. This is what’s keeping me alive and feeling young and inspired. My spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy told me that my purpose in life is to bring joy and light to the world, and I don’t know any better way to do then what I’m doing now.”
Clemons suffered a massive stroke on June 12th. While initial signs had been hopeful after his hospitalization and two subsequent brain surgeries, he reportedly took a turn for the worse later in the week.
“Clarence lived a wonderful life,” Springsteen said. “He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the oppurtunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner and 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.”