Sax man for Springsteen's E Street Band dies
Saxophonist Clarence Clemons, “the Big Man” of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, died June 18 in a Florida hospital. He was 69 and had suffered a stroke on June 12.
Clemons’ R&B-inflected tenor work was one of the most arresting features of Springsteen’s early recordings and live shows. Especially on Springsteen’s hyperactive early tours of the ’70s and ’80s, the towering musician was the main onstage foil for the rock singer-songwriter.
Born in Norfolk, Va., Clemons began playing alto saxophone at age 9; he later switched to baritone but claimed the tenor sax as his main instrument after an uncle bought him an album by King Curtis, Atlantic Records’ famed session man.
After injury cut short a promising collegiate football career, Clemons worked for several years in New Jersey as a counselor for emotionally disturbed children while playing music regionally on the side.
Clemons’ arrival in the E Street Band was immortalized in the “Born to Run” track “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and recalled in a long comic monologue with which Springsteen introduced his song “The E Street Shuffle” in concert.
According to Springsteen lore, the saxophonist, then a member of the Jersey Shore act Norman Seldin & the Joyful Noyze, first sat in with his future Boss on a stormy night in September 1971 at Asbury Park, N.J., club the Student Prince.
Signed to Columbia Records in 1972, Springsteen drafted Clemons to play solos on his debut album “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.” The saxophonist exited Seldin’s group to join Springsteen’s newly christened E Street Band that October.
Clemons was featured most prominently on Springsteen’s 1975 breakthrough “Born to Run,” contributing memorable solos on the title track, “Thunder Road” and the epic “Jungleland.” He also made important contributions to the albums “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River,” “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Tunnel of Love.”
The sax man parted company with Springsteen when the E Street Band was dissolved in 1989. But Clemons was back when Springsteen reunited the group in 2000 and appeared on four studio albums through 2009’s “Working on a Dream.”
He released eight studio and live albums in his own name. As a guest or sideman, Clemons worked with fellow E Streeters Little Steven Van Zandt (in his band the Disciples of Soul) and Nils Lofgren and with Springsteen’s familiar Southside Johnny’s Asbury Jukes.
He also backed acts that included Aretha Franklin (on her hit “Freeway of Love”), Gary U.S. Bonds, Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, Joan Armatrading, Ian Hunter, the Four Tops and Joe Cocker. He contributed to Lady Gaga’s 2011 megahit “Born This Way.”
Moonlighting as an actor, Clemons appeared in the features “New York, New York,” “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” “Fatal Instinct” and “Swing” and the TV series “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Jake and the Fatman,” “The Flash,” “Nash Bridges,” “Viper” and “The Wire.” He also had a guest voice role on “The Simpsons.”
He appeared in “The Promise,” Thom Zinny’s 2010 documentary about the making of “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” “Who Do I Think I Am?,” Nick Mead’s doc about Clemons’ solo tour of China, awaits release.
He published a memoir, “Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales,” in 2009.
Clemons is survived by his wife Victoria and four sons.