Remembering Clarence Clemons: A Decade Without The Big Man

It’s been 10 years since he left the band, and both E Street and the world have not been the same since

RIP Clarence Clemons (Art: Ron Hart)

You look at the legacy left by E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons and think: In the modern era, has ever a rock ‘n’ roll saxophonist who’s stood taller, prouder and been more integral to a band’s sound? 

Arguments can be made: Junior Walker, the Bob Seger Band’s Alto Reed, the English Beat’s Saxa, Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay. 

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

But no: Clarence Clemons – or “C” as Bruce Springsteen liked to call him – towered above, literally and figuratively. On the album that would elevate Springsteen from “maybe the next Dylan” to superstar, the Boss leaned on the shoulders of his large Black friend, implying the intimacy of the relationship, personal and professional. I don’t if there was an overt or implicit racial message of “We’re all in this together, Black and white.” Could’ve been. You could certainly read that in, if you wish.

Let me take you to the 75th performance of the 1978 tour.  (No, I wasn’t there; this comes from the bootleg recording.) All the members of Springsteen’s E Street Band have been introduced – save one. The Boss pauses while drummer Max Weinberg keeps the beat pumping and the momentum building.

 

AUDIO: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Capitol Theater, Passaic, NJ 9/19/1978

“Ladies and gentlemen,” announces a raspy-voiced Bruce Springsteen from the stage of the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ. 

“King of the World,” begins Springsteen, with all the melodrama he can muster. “Master of the Universe, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall refineries in a single bound. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the Big Man – on saxophone!”

“King of the World? Master of the Universe?” 

In 1982, I asked the Big Man if he saw it that way.

“It’s a hard job,” deadpanned Clemons, during a telephone interview from Big Man’s West, a music club he owned in Red Bank, NJ. “I have to work overtime.”

Clemons laughed. “When Bruce first did it, I was so embarrassed. I’m a shy guy, you know. I don’t blow my own horn – well, I do blow my own horn but it’s on stage. But when I’m talking to people it’s just, whatever. No way am I a star. I work hard. I get paid. It’s a job that I love. I don’t put myself above nobody or nothing.”

On stage, however, perspectives change. When the hulking Clemons, Springsteen’s white-suited main man, grips his sax, and chases Springsteen across the stage, he does seem to be of appropriately mammoth proportions.

“That’s the way I feel when I’m playing,” Clemons admitted. “Like I am King of the World.”

In the summer of ’81 Springsteen and the E Street Band concluded an 11- month international tour. Springsteen was (then and now) America’s biggest rock star and he played the large arenas. Clemons enjoyed it, but said, “I just didn’t get off like I wanted to. It’s a lot different when you play for 20,000 people. The guy in the last row could be playing checkers or something. It’s that close intimate thing that I miss when we play the big places.”

And so as ’81 neared a close, Clemons formed Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers, named after the site of his 600-seat club. The Red Bank Rockers, a 10-piece band that includes E Street organist Danny Federici, ex- Southside Johnny guitarist Billy Ryan, Warren Zevon guitarist David Landau and a four-piece horn section.

 

VIDEO: Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers on Swedish TV 1984

They were touring by bus. “Like the old days,” said Clemons who is temporarily stepping out from The Boss’ shadow. “We’ll all pile in there and have fun. It’s different when you travel by plane. You don’t have to carry your own sax. All you gotta do is show up and play and it becomes something else. This is the raw beginnings.”

Clemons sang – “Hey, look, I never did it before in a solo vein, but I’m loving it” – plays sax, ad leads his band through a set that will have a familiar sound to it. The repertoire consists mostly of early ’60s rock ‘n’ roll,a rhythm and blues and soul classics – the inspiration behind Springsteen’s music – plus “a tribute to the greatest saxophone player who ever lived, King Curtis, and some stuff you never heard of.”

As of when we’d talked, they’d played three gigs and Clemons was raving about the symbiosis. Playing clubs, Clemons says, “rekindles your kinship to rock ‘n’ roll, to the public. When you got a small club you’re touching everybody and everybody’s touching you.”

The goals, Clemons implied, are simple. “We’re just having fun and turning a lot of people on to some good music. I’m playing every song that I ever wanted to play and doing a few originals here and there. We’re not looking for a record deal or nothing.”

Clemons talked about the music he’s playing two ways. The more direct description: “It’s like going to a Bruce and the E Street Band encore.” Springsteen’s shows take the listener on a complex artistic journey that ranges from exultation (“Two Hearts,” “Prove It All Night”) to defeat (“Point Blank,” “The River”).

Springsteen’s encores, however, showcase his roots. They’re gutsy, consistently uplifting songs done by the likes of Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Gary US Bonds, Elvis Presley, Sam & Dave and The Animals. Basically, the rock ‘n’ roll has rhythm and blues overtones and drives straight and hard.

Clemons’ other way of talking about the music was with a philosophic passion that approached religious fervor. “One thing that kind of got me into this,” he said, “was that I was in this club one night and I heard ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ (Otis Redding’s soul classic) done disco. And I wanted to cry. I said, No, no, no, there’ll be kids growing up thinking that’s the way it’s supposed to be done.’ “

 

VIDEO: Otis Redding “Try A Little Tenderness” Live 1967

The glossy, high-tech disco boom of the mid-late ‘70s dismayed Clemons. “What was it? Where’s the reality? I got the beat, but where is the reality, the feeling from the soul? That was missing – like a shell it was empty.”

Not that rock ‘n’ roll had become the be all to end all. “Rock ‘n’ roll took a big step backwards,” Clemons said. “We have to go back and become crusaders for rock ‘n’ roll again by going back and bringing it back like it came around the first time. We’re just bringing it back to reality.”

At the time we spoke, more and more rock bands were using sax players and Clemons said, “I feel like I played a strong part in bringing the saxophone back to its rightful place in music. The saxophone is a rock ‘n’ roll instrument.”

He was not, he wanted to stress, a closet free jazz cat, just out slumming with the rockers and cashing checks. “I’m not into free form,” he said. “I need a pedestrian beat. I was born and raised on rock ‘n’ roll.”

Clemons was, of course, part of the Asbury Park scene that spawned Springsteen. He linked up with Springsteen and the E Streeters in 1972 and the story of his joining the group has taken on mythic proportions. Springsteen, a master of tall tales, doesn’t exactly discourage this.

In his Springsteen biography, Born to Run, Dave Marsh recounts a typical rap Springsteen delivered in concert. Springsteen and guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt were walking down an Asbury Park boardwalk at 4 a.m. when they encountered this big man in a white suit carrying a saxophone. The man was coming at them and they were scared. When he got close they threw down all their money, hoping to appease him, but the big man just put out his hand. They touched, sparks ignited . . . and, bang, the band kicks into “The E Street Shuffle,” a song, wrote Marsh, of “unity and passion.”

And then there’s the rap about Clemons descending to earth in a space ship . . .

“I’ll tell you the whole thing,” said Clemons, enjoying the recounting of the legends. “I was playing with this band called Norman Selvin and the Joyful Noise, an oldies group. There was this girl in the band, Karen Cassidy, and her roommate was going out with Bruce. Karen said there’s this guy you’ve gotta meet – when you guys meet it’s gonna be fantastic. So one day she introduced me to the guy at the Student Prince, the place he was playing in Asbury Park. I said ‘Hey can I sit in?’ He heard from Karen that I was around and I was playing so he said sure. And it was like magic. It was like I’d been playing with him forever.

And the space thing? “It was like I walked in from outer space or something. In his artistic mind, theatrically, that’s poetic justice.”

 

VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” Live at Hammersmith Odeon in London, England 1975

When Clemons was touring under his own name, he wanted to alert fans that Springsteen would not be joining Clemons on any of the gigs, turning a club concert into Celebrity Spotlight. “I’m his biggest fan and he’s my biggest fan,” said Clemons, “but I don’t want him to show up. It would be bad for both of us – this is totally separate from him.”

Clemons was married five times and has four sons. He suffered a stroke on June 12, 2011 and died from its complications on June 18. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a huge Springsteen fan, had the state’s flags lowered to half-staff. (Clemons’ nephew, Jake Clemons, now fills Clarence’s role in the E Street band.

Springsteen, of course, was one of his eulogizers. Among his many words, as captured by Rolling Stone: “So, I’ll miss my friend, his sax, the force of nature his sound was, his glory, his foolishness, his accomplishments, his face, his hands, his humor, his skin, his noise, his confusion, his power, his peace.  But his love and his story, the story that he gave me, that he whispered in my ear, that he allowed me to tell… and that he gave to you… is gonna carry on.  I’m no mystic, but the undertow, the mystery and power of Clarence and my friendship leads me to believe we must have stood together in other, older times, along other rivers, in other cities, in other fields, doing our modest version of god’s work… work that’s still unfinished.  So I won’t say goodbye to my brother, I’ll simply say, see you in the next life, further on up the road, where we will once again pick up that work, and get it done.  

Big Man, thank you for your kindness, your strength, your dedication, your work, your story.  Thanks for the miracle… and for letting a little white boy slip through the side door of the Temple of Soul.”  

 

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

One thought on “Remembering Clarence Clemons: A Decade Without The Big Man

  • June 18, 2021 at 8:04 pm
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    So, Chris Christie may be a Bruce fan, but Bruce is no fan of that fat, greedy right-wing slob who acted the bully until he decide to become Trump’s bitch. Let’s just be clear about that.

    Speaking of bullies, let’s be clear about Clemons too. Some great sax riffs? Sure. Great sideman and onstage foil? Definitely. Domestic abuser? Oh yeah:

    https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1997-01-05-mn-15668-story.html

    https://xyonline.net/blogs/25/now-hes-gone-does-it-really-matter-big-man-clarence-clemons-was-once-convicted-domestic

    Way to go, “Big Man.”

    And Dave Marsh? Bloviating gasbag, and arrogant prick. The arrogance is especially funny, given he owes Springsteen for his entire career.

    He’s even more insufferable on satellite radio than he is in print. Surpring to hear him talk though, as I didn’t think he ever takes Bruce’s d**k out of his mouth.

    Bruce is pretty great, but he doesn’t always pick the best friends or conifdantes.

    Reply

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