‘The Big Man’ leaves a big void in rock
Bruce Springsteen called his loss “immeasurable.” Actor Rob Lowe reflected on the “electric, generous, sweet spirit (who) taught me how to look cool with a sax.” And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie thanked him “for 40 years of magical & soulful music.”
A worldwide outpouring of grief and memories followed news of Clarence Clemons’ death Saturday night. The longtime saxophone player for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band died in Florida from complications after suffering a massive stroke a week ago. He was 69.
Fondly known as “the Big Man,” Clemons (an imposing 6-foot-2) had been The Boss’ vital and colorful sideman since 1972. His busy solo career as a bandleader and session player found him performing and recording with artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Ringo Starr.
On stage and on the Internet, famous admirers paid tribute and paid their respects. Closing Saturday’s U2 concert in Anaheim, Calif., Bono asked for the lights to be dimmed before singing Moment of Surrender to a stadium of fans holding cellphones aloft.
“I want you to think about the beautiful symphonic sound that came out of one man’s saxophone,” he told the crowd. “I want you to think about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band of brothers. I want you to think of Clarence Clemons. This man just carried the music, and the music carried him until this day.”
Bono ended the song by reciting lyrics from Jungleland.
Eddie Vedder, performing a solo show Saturday in Hartford, Conn., learned of Clemons’ death when a roadie came on stage and whispered in his ear just as he was dedicating Better Man to the sax player. He paused and put a hand over his face before pressing on.
Soon after the news broke, Springsteen posted on his website:
“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. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. 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.”
The Twitterverse lit up with similar sentiments from friends and fans.
Slash called him “one of the finest musicians/people in this business.” Filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted, “So many yrs of bringing joy 2 so many of us. In 94 I spent a day cruising round NJ w/him. Unforgettable.” Bryan Adams remembered Clemons as “one of the greatest rock sax players.” And magician/comedian Penn Jillette tweeted, “Saw him a zillion times with his (and everyone’s) Boss. I was lucky enough to play music with him once on our show.”
Coldplay singer Chris Martin posted on the band’s website, “RIP our favourite saxophone player.”
Clemons’ talent was as impressive as his flashy stage persona, says Jeff Coffin, saxophonist for Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and the Dave Matthews Band (he replaced LeRoi Moore, who died in 2008).
“Clarence had a very iconic sound that’s been emulated a lot,” Coffin says. “He had that big vocal sound, a quality in his tone that Springsteen had in his voice. He did a lot to elevate that sound worldwide. When you think of a sax solo in rock ‘n’ roll, he’s the guy you think of. That kind of profound influence, especially in that genre, is relatively unheard of.
“He was imposing in every level and had his own style, not just playing, but his persona, vibe and look. He really did occupy a big space, sonically and personally. One of the greats, for sure.”
While medical problems had taken a toll — he underwent spinal surgery and knee replacement operations in recent years — Clemons remained “a vital cog in the E Street machinery,” says Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and author of 2006’s Greetings from E Street: The Story of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
“For past few tours, his role had been diminished because of his health but the musicality was still there,” Santelli says. “Clarence brought a very strong sense of soul to the E Street Band. In addition to being a key musical member of the band, Clarence was one of its key characters. When you think of the Big Man and what Bruce did to spotlight his size and stature, he’s almost a mythical figure.
“In those marathon shows back in the day, the way he and Bruce interacted had a special synergy that’s difficult or impossible to reproduce with anyone else.”
Clemons had enjoyed a career upswing of late, contributing to tracks on Lady Gaga’s Born This Way album and joining her on the American Idol season finale. When she performed April 12 in Sunrise, Fla., Gaga dedicated You and I to Clemons, dubbing him “one of my favorite people in the world.”
The Gaga project was the last in a long series of high notes for the irrepressible showman who moved into music after a car accident (the day before a Cleveland Browns tryout) derailed his football ambitions.
Weaned on gospel music, the Virginia native began playing sax at 9 (he wanted an electric train for Christmas, but received a saxophone) and joined a jazz band in high school. He was inspired by King Curtis, Junior Walker and Gato Barbieri but gradually developed a distinctive blazing rock-driven style.
In 1971, he heard the Bruce Springsteen Band at a New Jersey club, The Student Prince, and told the singer, “I want to be in your band.” Springsteen was not averse to the idea and summoned Clemons for tenor sax parts on his 1973 debut, then enlisted him for his touring band.
Clemons’ signature wail is stamped on many Springsteen classics, and he served as a charismatic soloist and humorous foil on stage.
On his own, Clemons released several solo albums, most notably 1985’s well-received Hero, which generated a hit duet with Jackson Browne, You’re a Friend of Mine. Temple of Soul, his R&B funk band with Narada Michael Walden, released Brothers in Arms in 2008.
He played on scores of albums across multiple genres, including on solo discs by fellow E Streeters Nils Lofgren and Steven Van Zandt. Clemons also recorded with Ricky Skaggs, Dave Koz, Joe Cocker, Twisted Sister, Roy Orbison, Alvin Lee, Luther Vandross, Carl Perkins, Gary “U.S.” Bonds and Lisa Stansfield.
And he branched out into film, TV and publishing. He got roles in the series Diff’rent Strokes, Nash Bridges, The Simpsons and HBO’s The Wire. He landed big-screen parts in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Blues Brothers 2000 and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York.
In 2009, Clemens published his memoir, Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales, which former president Bill Clinton called “an essential read for any music lover” and “a unique personal narrative that’s bound in both history and folklore.”
In the updated reprint, Clemons shared details about his 2010 back operation while recuperating at his Florida home.
“In a 13-hour surgery, my spine was fused from L2 to L5,” he wrote. “I’ve got metal all over my body now. It’s in my hips, knees, chest and back. Don’t come to the airport with me unless you’ve got a lot of time. … I feel stronger every day and look forward to dancing across the stage again on the next tour.
“As I write this I’m sitting on my porch looking out at the Bay toward the horizon where the ocean meets the sky. I intend to keep on keeping on until the day the music swells and giant letters rise out of the sea and spell the words The End.”
The end has come for the Big Man but not for his legacy, carried forward by fans of his big sound and his bigger spirit.