There are few images in Rock `N Roll more iconic than that of Clarence Clemons lending literal support to Bruce Springsteen for the gatefold cover of the latter’s Born to Run Lp (1975). The photo depicted rock bravado and brotherhood like no other – a coming together of spirits that recognized and admired each other, then blazed a trail toward making music history. In a cruel industry schism that has kept most Black musicians from reaping the full splendor of Rock `N Roll glory, there was simply no denying the cobalt healing energy of Clarence Clemons – “The Big Man and his Sax.” For four decades running, he kept fans “Blinded by the Light” of his loving, soul-piercing aura.
Clarence Clemons was born January 11, 1942 in Norfolk, VA - the son of a fish market owner and the grandson of a Baptist minister – his roots in gospel music and humble service. On his 9th Christmas, instead of the electric train he begged for, his father gave him an alto saxophone and he took to it right away. He loved mighty players such as Junior Walker and King Curtis, particularly the latter’s work with vocal group the Coasters, which insured that he would not be traveling in the flight path of Charlie “Bird” Parker. However, his first life goal was to become a football giant, attending Maryland State College on both sports AND music scholarships, playing as a lineman for the school team alongside Emerson Boozer. He was well on his way until a major car accident dashed that dream. It was then he focused on the music full time.
Among Clemons’ very first recordings was at 18 years of age with Tyrone Ashley’s Funky Music Machine out of Plainfield, Michigan – a band that included future Parliament-Funkadelic founders Eddie Hazel, Billy “Bass” Nelson and Ray Davis. It was in September of 1971 that he first met Bruce Springsteen on the New Jersey bar band circuit at a joint Bruce was playing called the Student Prince. In July of the following year when Springsteen began recording his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, he came through the Shipbottom Lounge in Point Pleasant, New Jersey to jam with the band that Clemons was playing with – Norman Seldin & The Joyful Noyze. Completely enchanted by the man and his sax, Springsteen asked Clemons to lend his tenor sax to two songs on his album: “Blinded By The Light” and “Spirit in the Night.” When it came time to embark upon his first tour, he invited Clemons to join his “E” Street Band.
Clarence Clemons soon morphed into “The Big Man” to Bruce’s “The Boss” as the pair’s friendship and on stage kinship became one of the shining symbols of unity though the music. At 6 foot 5 inches and 270 pounds but with a heart as big as Texas, Clemons was a beacon of healing soul power that fans of the E Street Band came to love with a fervor as great as that of the singing/songwriting/guitar-slinging leader. Clemons was present on all of the subsequent “E” Street Band albums: The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle, Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River and Born in the USA. His most iconic solo is the one he played on “Jungleland, a performance he was so obsessed with perfecting that he spent 16 hours chiseling it to perfection. Even those who are not avid Springsteen fanatics will recall his saxophone solo on the E Street Band holiday perennial “Santa Claus is Coming to Town (Live).” So integral and tied to Springsteen was Clarence that when songwriting great Randy Newman playfully satirized The Boss in his hilarious song “My Life is Good” (from Trouble in Paradise – 1983), the fantasy included him calling out from a stage in some massive arena, “Blow Big Man…Blow” (with Ernie Watts wailing away in the plum Rock `n Roll saxophone role of Clemons)!
In addition to the E Street Band classics, Clemons waxed 7 revealingly titled solo Lps: Rescue (1983), The Chief (1984), Hero (1985), Night with Mr. C (1989), The Peacemaker (1995), and two volumes of Live from Asbury Park (2002 & 2004).
Beyond respected into the realm of beloved, Clemons also performed with many other artists from Roy Orbison to the Grateful Dead and Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. He earned his R&B stripes in 1985 with his soaring sax solo on Aretha Franklin’s massive crossover smash “Freeway of Love” (produced by Narada Michael Walden) and scored a hit of his own with “You’re a Friend of Mine” as a duet with Jackson Browne. He even made it to the big screen playing – of all things - a trumpeter in acclaimed director Martin Scorsese’s 1977 musical film, “New York, New York.”
Mighty as he was, Clemons was plagued with a series of chronic pain ailments likely stemming all the way back to the car accident that ended his gridiron pursuits. In true Big Man fashion, he kept up a face of faith and triumph even through major surgeries. Within the last two years he was seen willing himself up from a wheelchair to play with Springsteen on football’s biggest night, the 2009 Super Bowl, and this year graced two songs on pop comet Lady Gaga’s brand new album, Born This Way, even helping her promote the work with appearances on the season finale of “American Idol” and in her music video for “The Edge of Glory.” When Clemons was hospitalized last week following a stroke he suffered in his Singer Island, Florida home, well wishes and prayers poured forth from E Street Nation fans around the globe. Springsteen and band members along with family were at his side as he tried, ultimately in vain, to perform another miraculous recovery.
The world lost the Big Man, age 69, on Saturday, June 18, 2011. The word Bruce Springsteen used to define that loss: “immeasurable.”
In closing, I have one general observation about mighty-mighty horn players. I’ve always felt that as musicians they sacrifice more of themselves than any other…their actual life breath funneled through small unforgiving pieces of metal that they will into melodies fiery and soothing. Clarence Clemons shared life breath on rock `n roll stages worldwide before hundreds of thousands of people alongside massive stacks of amplified guitars, screaming voices, barreling bass and crashing drums. Clarence hung tall amidst it all - a champion. May the Big Man enjoy a hard-earned rest after decades of benevolent service.
A. Scott Galloway
June 19, 2011