When E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons passed away Saturday, he left millions of fans mourning his presence. But he also left many friends and musical admirers. Rolling Stone spoke to several of them – “Stormin'” Norman Seldin of the Joyful Noyze (one of Clemons’ first bandleaders), Bob Weir (who, with the Grateful Dead, played with Clemons several times), Gary U.S. Bonds (who collaborated with Clemons on Bonds’ two early Eighties comeback discs Dedication and On the Line), Jackson Browne (who collaborated with Clemons on 1985’s “You’re a Friend of Mine”), Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello (who played with the E Street Band several times) and Alto Reed (Bob Seger’s sax sideman and friend of Clemons) – about Clemons’ larger-than-life persona, his continuous generosity and that sound.
I just spoke to him a couple of weeks ago. I hadn’t spoken to him in a really long time, and I didn’t realize how he was doing. [His death] was a shock. He was so powerful and vibrant. He was the last person you’d think would succumb to a physical ailment. He told me he was on the new Lady Gaga record and how much he admired her and how great it was to be on her record. He told me what a hard-working professional she was. He was so complimentary of her.
I met Clarence when I met the rest of the band. Bruce and I were doing a show together back in the early days. The first time I saw them on stage was at the Roxy in L.A. I still remember when they did “10th Avenue Freeze-Out” and they did this dramatic reenactment of the night Clarence joined the band. It was in this small club that completely accentuated his size. He was so much bigger than the other guys in the band. It was like the heavens opening, or like the sun coming over the mountain. He was such a towering presence but there was also so much love.
He brought the E Street Band the power of friendship, redemptive love and inclusion. He did for one generation – well, several generations now – of American kids what Richard Pryor did. He broke down racial barriers and made it about inclusion. He performed that service just like Pryor did.
He was such a generous guy and he had this enormous smile. I remember going backstage to his dressing room at one of their shows and he called it the Temple of Love. Or maybe it was the Temple of Soul. I think it even said that on the door. There were incense and fabric and all these lights. It really WAS like a temple.
Doing “You’re a Friend of Mine” was such a thrill for me to be asked. It probably wasn’t a song that was appropriate to have Bruce on. Maybe that would’ve been too obvious. But I was happy to be on that record. We shot the video at a house in Hollywood. Videos are usually pretty arduous, but this was fun to hang out with Clarence and [Clemons’ longtime friend] Narada Michael Walden.
I know what it’s like when someone really crucial to a band leaves; I’m thinking of when David Lindley left my band. You can’t really find someone to take that place, so you move in another direction. It’s gonna be really interesting to see what they do. It’ll be interesting to see how those songs get played without Clarence.
NEXT: Stormin’ Norman Seldin
Stormin‘ Norman Seldin
I first met Clarence when the Joyful Noyze were playing at a club at the Asbury Park Circle, I think it was in the very late Sixties. There were about 150 people, a decent crowd, when he came in one night and asked if he could sit in. We played King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade.” We played it for about 10 minutes, but we could’ve played it for 35. The crowd was stunned. I’m a total R&B guy, we had a drummer that was as funk as you could get. Clarence was exactly what I wanted. Afterwards, my drummer looked up at me and said, “You’re going to do this, aren’t you?” I said, “Clarence, you wanna work with this band?” He said, “Are you serious?” And he was an instant fit.
There were no black players in white bands back then. Promoters tried to get me to drop him. They said they’d give me the work back if we canceled him. I lost about $30,000 worth of work, which in 1970 and 1971 was a lot of money. If I didn’t show up with him, it would’ve been fine. But I said, “There’s no the Joyful Noyze without Clarence Clemons, period.” I never told Clarence. I didn’t have the heart to tell a man that.
Bruce came to watch us about three or four times in the early Seventies. I knew something was going on – I knew Clarence was talking to him after we played. Clarence said, “Would you like [if I joined Bruce]?” I said, “No.” But it was none of my business. People have to live their lives.
But he never forgot me. When we were at the Garden last year, Clarence invited my wife and I to New York. He paid for our rooms and everything. We had a moment alone backstage, I asked how he was doing. “I’m not, man,” he said. “Every part of my body is shot.” He said, “God’ll get me through this – I’ll do a great show for you and I can’t let you and Bruce my band and my fans down. But I’m hurting. I have to use a golf cart to get to the stage.” It was not what I was used to looking at.
The next day, he went on Jon Stewart. About four minutes into the show, Clarence said, “I owe Norman Seldin everything.” It broke me down. Chills went up my spine. He was trying to pay me back all the time. But Clarence was always trying to give something to somebody. The guy wouldn’t turn somebody down for a nickel if he only had a nickel in his own pocket. That’s the way he always was.
NEXT: Tom Morello
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
Clarence was an old pal, a soulful bro. He was a good hang. Back in the late Eighties and early Nineties, he was living out here in Marin County. He didn’t have any commitments to the E Street Band. He was in moving-on mode, and he, Jerry and I were mixed it up a bit. We were dropping by clubs like Sweetwater and sitting in with various bands. Jerry and I were both single at that time, and Clarence suggested the three of us move in together and have a bachelor pad. Jerry and I almost went for it. It would’ve been a lot of fun, but I don’t think anyone would have survived [Laughs]. Jerry was in good shape, but we were doing a little drinking.
Clarence was always up for playing and always a delight to play with. He had that power and authority. He was a big guy with a lot of lung power, and he really made his sax honk. But he was also real flexible. He could play tenderly, and he could play country and make it stick. There was a period when he sat in with the Dead, and that was where we got to know him. We’d do the R&B and blues stuff together, like “Little Red Rooster” and a version of Willie Dixon’s “The Same Thing.” I have a feeling he was shooting for a role in that band. Jerry and I would’ve gone for it, but I’m not sure everyone else would. In the Dead back then, anyone had veto power, and a couple of the guys hated saxophones. Had it not been for a couple of objections, Clarence might’ve ended up in the Dead.
The last time he sat in with me was at a Furthur show in April, in Boca Raton. He seemed a bit frail. He showed up at the gig in a wheelchair. But he walked on and managed to stand up, and he just fucking wailed. We played “Turn on Your Lovelight” and one or two others, and he blew everybody away. I miss him, but I’m always going to hear him. Whenever I play “Lovelight,” I’ll hear him.
NEXT: Alto Reed
I started playing saxophone with Bob Seger in late 1972 – about the same time Clarence started playing with Bruce. Both Bruce and Bob gave each of us similar positions of “sidekick” that developed over the years. And because Bob and Bruce were very aware of each other, I like to think Clarence helped me have a front-and-center position in Bob’s band. Having someone else out there doing what I do that helped validate me in that role in the band.
Bruce constantly referred to Clarence as “the Big Man,” which really helped create this bigger than life persona. Add that to the fact that he was a great musician – a great saxophonist and melodist and somebody with an extraordinary tone – and you had a match made in heaven.
His playing came from deep within. The way he made the saxophone resonate was almost supernatural. When he played, you heard every ounce of his soul.
We’ve lost a great musician and a great performer. But a huge part of Rock and Roll has moved on to the next arena, so he’s in good company. I send angels Clarence’s way to guide him home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Heaven.
NEXT: Gary U.S. Bonds
Gary U.S. Bonds
Clarence and I were both from Norfolk, Virginia, but we didn’t become close until my comeback album, Dedication [in 1980], which I recorded with Bruce and the boys. Clarence was my big soul brother. He was fun to hang around with, partly because nobody bothered you when you were with him!
But he was a gentle giant, a very easygoing man. He’d do anything for you that he possibly could. He certainly helped me a lot, especially those albums of mine he played on. It was fantastic amount of time and effort he put into it to make sure it was right for me. I appreciate him for that.
I never found anybody that can play like Clarence or even sounds close to it. Once you hear his sax, you know exactly who it is. He put a lot of air into it, and out came this big, booming sound. It wasn’t a lot of notes played. He could take one note and it would reverberate throughout the whole record, just hanging on one note. Totally amazing.
I talked to him two or three weeks ago. He said he was living down in Florida, enjoying the sunshine. I said “Well, don’t enjoy it too much – you already got your sun tan. You got that years ago,” and he laughed. He was having a great time down there, just enjoying life, relaxing. He met a lot of friends down there. He had something going with the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, which was giving him an opportunity to get out and play and get some music.
Even though [the E Street Band] are great musicians, he had that sound that made everything possible. You’re going to be listening for it every time you see them now. It’s going to be hard to overcome that, I’m sure.