The saxophone sound behind Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and many other top recording artists
Published 26/06/2011 | 05:00
Clarence Clemons, who died on June 18 aged 69, sculpted a rambunctious saxophone sound that was a key factor in delivering Bruce Springsteen's impassioned street-romanticism to the wider world.
As the Seventies unfolded and Springsteen led popular music away from high-faluting progressive music and stadium rock toward the everyday concerns of blue-collar life, his musical message was sweetened by Clemons's soulful accompaniment on record and showmanship on stage.
Thereafter Clemons branched into acting and a solo career, and became an in-demand contributor to releases by other recording artists, including Ringo Starr, Aretha Franklin and, most recently, the Springsteen fan Lady Gaga, who featured him on her hit album Born This Way. He even appears fleetingly in the video for GaGa's new single, The Edge Of Glory, which was released two days before he died.
But it is with Springsteen that his name will be most associated. Indeed, "The Boss" was ever-keen to acknowledge Clemons' importance in altering his fortunes when he was a struggling singer-songwriter, notably singing in Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out about the moment "the Big Man joined the band". The song was featured on Springsteen's breakthrough album Born To Run. Significantly, the front cover shot portrayed Springsteen leaning for support on the 6ft 2in, 18-stone Clemons. "With Clarence at my side," Springsteen said, "my band and I were able to tell stories far deeper than those simply contained in our music."
Clarence Anicholas Clemons Jr was born the eldest of three on January 11, 1942 in Norfolk, Virginia. Raised a Baptist, he received an alto saxophone as a Christmas present when he was nine years old. A switch to the meatier baritone sax in high school prompted him to fall under the spell of the influential Fifties' rock and roll saxophonist King Curtis.
Entering Maryland State College on an American football and music scholarship, Clemons tried out as a professional for the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns teams, but a knee injury sustained in a car accident prompted him to focus on music as a member of The Vibratones, a soul covers act.
In the Sixties, a job as a counsellor with emotionally disturbed children took Clemons to the Jamesburg Training School For Boys in Newark, New Jersey, where he was recruited into another covers act, The Joyful Noyze. In September 1971, at the prompting of the band's lead singer, Karen Cassidy, he paid a visit to an Asbury Park club to attend a show by what was then called The Bruce Springsteen Band.
"As I walked to the club, a big North-Easter blew in," Clemons said in 2009, the year in which his autobiography Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales was published. "When I opened the door, the wind tore it out of my hand and blew it down the street. The bouncers went chasing after it and I stepped in with lightning and thunder behind me, a black guy in a white club. I found out which was Bruce and said to him: 'I want to sit in.' So I sat in and it was a magical moment. All of the things I'd been searching for, all the music I wanted to play, was right there. Whenever I'm on stage with Bruce I still feel that moment. He looked at me and I looked at him and we fell in love."
Clemons appeared on Springsteen's 1972 debut album Greetings From Asbury Park NJ on such tracks as Blinded By The Light, which later became a hit for Manfred Mann's Earth Band, and became a founder member of The E Street Band as it accompanied the frontman on albums such as Born To Run, The River and Born In The USA.
In the mid-Eighties Clemons appeared on two sizeable US hits by other artists -- Jackson Browne's You're A Friend Of Mine and Aretha Franklin's Freeway Of Love. In between recording with Springsteen and session work with Ringo Starr, Todd Rundgren and Twisted Sister, Clemons released eight albums, some under his own name and others with backing group The Red Bank Rockers and latterly The Temple Of Soul, a collaboration with producer Narada Michael Waldman.
In 1977, Clemons made his acting debut as a trumpeter in Martin Scorsese's jazz film New York, New York, and followed this up with such cameos as "One Of The Three Most Important People In The World" in the 1989 teen comedy Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. There were also occasional television appearances in such programmes as Diff'rent Strokes. His voice-over was used in an episode of The Simpsons and, reflecting his career before entering the music business, Clemons played a youth worker in two episodes of the gritty drama The Wire.
Clarence Clemons, who suffered a stroke, married five times. He is survived by his wife Victoria and four sons.