Clarence Clemons, the legendary saxophonist in the E Street Band who played alongside Bruce Springsteen for the past 40 years, died on June 18th. Clemons had 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. He was 69.
Clemons – known affectionately to fan and friends as the Big Man – was the heart and soul of the E Street Band. His playing on tracks like “Born To Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Jungleland,” “Dancing In The Dark” and countless more represent some of the most famous sax work in the history of rock & roll. “The story I have told throughout my work life I could not have told as well without Clarence,” Springsteen wrote in the introduction to Clemons’ 2009 memoir Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales.
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 along 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.”
Clemons soon became part of Springsteen’s backing band (not yet known as the E Street Band), and when Bruce recorded his debut LP Greetings From Asbury Park in the summer of 1972, Clemons was brought in for the sessions. Over the next two decades, Clemons became the most recognizable member of the E Street Band – for his massive size, equally huge personality and his onstage role as Springsteen’s foil.
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 America begins to work and there is music already in the air.”
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 and has been incredibly active ever since. Clemons loved being back on the road, even as he battled incredible pain with his knees, back and hips. Earlier this year, he played sax on two tracks on Lady Gaga’s new album Born This Way. He appears in the recently released video for “Edge of Glory,” and his final live performance was with Gaga on the season finale of American Idol.