Saxophonist Clarence Clemons, an indispensable part of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band both for his full-throttle tenor sax work and his larger-than-life onstage persona as “the Big Man,” died Saturday. He was 69.
Clemons, who put his stamp on such Springsteen staples as “Born to Run,” “Jungleland” and “Rosalita,” died in a Palm Beach, Fla., hospital of complications from a massive stroke he suffered June 12 at his Florida home, a spokeswoman for Springsteen and the E Street Band said.
“Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family,” Springsteen said in a statement Saturday. “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.”
Clemons’ career was inextricably linked to his decades playing alongside Springsteen, but he also became an in-demand player and presence for other musicians including Jackson Browne, Ringo Starr, Aretha Franklin and, most recently, Lady Gaga, with his appearance on her mega-hit album “Born This Way.”
But every musical road Clemons traveled always seemed to lead back to E Street.
“Every time we get together, it’s all brand-new,” Clemons told the Associated Press last year. “Every time, Bruce comes back with something new and something different. I keep wondering: How high can he take it? ... How many times can he be reborn? I just want to keep on living so I can keep seeing the change.”
Clarence Clemons was born Jan. 11, 1942, in Norfolk, Va., the son of a fish merchant who bought him an alto saxophone for Christmas one year, instead of the electric train he’d asked for.
“I’d never even seen a saxophone before, and didn’t really know why my father gave it to me,” Clemons once told DownBeat magazine. And even though his father also arranged for him to take lessons, Clemons recalled that “my dad made me practice in the backroom of the store, while the other kids were out playing baseball, and I hated it.”
That changed when he was a teenager. He’d switched to baritone sax and played in the Crestwood High School jazz band, but after his uncle gave him a record by celebrated R&B session player King Curtis, Clemons was hooked on tenor, the instrument favored in early rock and R&B bands.
“He turned me on, and it was then that I decided I wanted to play tenor,” Clemons recalled later. “His sound and tone were so big on those sessions he did, and his feeling was right from the heart. Here was a guy who gave me something.”
A music and football scholarship took Clemons to what is now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where he majored in sociology while still dreaming of playing in the NFL. After graduating, he moved to Newark, N.J., and took a day job counseling emotionally disturbed youths. At night he plied the bars and nightclubs with his saxophone.
In Asbury Park one night, he went to a bar a block from the one where he’d been booked to check out a scrawny local musician he’d been hearing about.
“I had my saxophone with me, and when I walked in this club — no lie — a gust of wind just blew the door down the street. Boof!,” Clemons told People magazine. “I say, ‘I want to play. Can I sit in?’ Bruce says, ‘Hey, you can do anything you want. Take a couple of background singers, anything.’
“I sat in with him that night,” Clemons said. “It was phenomenal. We’d never even laid eyes on each other, but after that first song, he looked at me, I looked at him, and we said, ‘This is it.’ After that I was stoked.”
The E Street Band was in place when talent scout John Hammond signed Springsteen to Columbia Records in 1972. The group’s first two albums were lyrically effusive affairs that led to Springsteen’s being tagged as yet another “new Dylan.” Musically the songs wedded rock, folk, R&B, soul and gospel strains.
Clemons’ sax figured prominently in early tracks such as “Spirit in the Night” and “Rosalita,” which became core tunes of the band’s live shows. But the albums sold modestly and didn’t crack Billboard’s Top 200 chart until after “Born to Run” cemented Springsteen as a new hero in the rock mainstream.
Clemons’ contributions were powerfully woven into the songs on “Born to Run,” which were given a new Phil Spector-like sonic grandeur by Springsteen and the album’s co-producers.
While Clemons’ beefy tenor sax work was central to Springsteen’s new sound, he brought an imposing presence onstage, where he often served as a playful and big-hearted foil to the band’s leader. His nickname was anything but merely honorary — he stood 6 feet 2 and weighed anywhere between 250 and 300 pounds.
Springsteen invoked his place in the band in another song from that album, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”: “When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band/From the coastline to the city all the little pretties raise their hands.” It’s Clemons’ mighty shoulder that Springsteen is leaning on in the cover photograph.
Continuing on “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” 1980’s two-disc set “The River” and 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” Clemons’ sax was as integral to the music as Springsteen’s raspy voice and twanging Telecaster guitar, Max Weinberg’s thunderous drumming and Roy Bittan’s elegant piano work.
They helped Springsteen climb to the top of the pop music mountain in the 1980s with “Born in the U.S.A.,” which spent seven weeks at No. 1; a five-disc live set that also topped the charts for seven weeks; and “Tunnel of Love,” the triple-platinum 1987 album that also went to No. 1.
Clemons recorded his first solo album in 1983, which gave him a new role at center stage. “I love the responsibility of fronting my own band,” Clemons told the Ottawa Sun in 2003. “Creating my own audience is fun, developing my own ideas and carving out my own space.”
He further established an identity away from E Street by playing on Franklin’s 1985 hit “Freeway of Love,” the same year he scored a Top 20 hit with his duet with Browne on “You’re a Friend of Mine.”
Yet through those side ventures, there was always the E Street Band to come back to. That changed in 1989, when Springsteen decided he was ready to move on musically and informed the E Streeters that he was mothballing the band.
“Springsteen said he wanted to try something new, do something different,” Clemons told the Phoenix Gazette. “It was quite a shock; you go through all the emotions of a divorce, all the emotions, instantly. I didn’t say much to him. I just said, ‘Good luck.’ But before long I started to see the good side.”
In 1989 he joined ex-Beatle Starr, pianist-singer Dr. John, the Band’s drummer Levon Helm, E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren, Joe Walsh and others on a tour he described as “one of the most joyous times of my life.”
After a decade in solo settings and other band configurations, Springsteen decided it was time to reconvene the E Street Band.
“That’s the way we always work,” Clemons told a reporter last year. “You get that call, you show up.”
Clemons in recent years had to contend with health issues including two hip replacements, and knee and back surgeries. In the ‘70s he had a reputation as a rock ‘n’ roll party animal, but in later years he adopted a healthier lifestyle, exploring Eastern philosophies, exercising regularly and meditating daily. Still, his ailments restricted him onstage during the physically grueling E Street Band shows.
In 2009 he published his autobiography, “Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales,” in which he addressed the pain he felt when Springsteen put the band on hold — not knowing at the time whether they’d ever play together again. He also wrote about the sense of acceptance he eventually developed about his role in one of rock’s most celebrated groups.
“It’s fine for me to be known as part of the E Street Band,” he told the New York Daily News. “We all wonder what we’re here to do. Something got me into a band with Bruce. It’s where I belong.”
Survivors include his fifth wife, Victoria, and four sons.