Clarence Clemons, who at the age of nine received as a Christmas present his first saxophone in lieu of a train set, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, on January 11, 1942. His early love of football nearly led to another career, but, influenced by legendary players such as King Curtis and Junior Walker, it was the sax in which Clarence found his true calling.
Like other E Streeters, Clarence played with other bands around the Asbury Park, New Jersey area before meeting Bruce. The meeting, and his subsequent entry into the E Street Band, is the stuff of legend: a stormy night, the Bruce Springsteen Band at a club called Student Prince, Clarence bursting through the door that literally blew off its hinges and stating his desire to play in the band. How much is truth and how much exaggeration seems irrelevant; suffice to say that, from the moment “the Big Man joined the Band,” the E Street Band had found its soul.
The sound of Clarence’s sax reverberates through so many E Street classics — “Born to Run,” “Rosalita,” “Prove it All Night,” “Bobby Jean,” “Spirit in the Night,” to name just a few — it is impossible to imagine what they would have been without Clarence. And his solo in “Jungleland” is nothing short of sheer brilliance, an epic and signature performance in Clarence’s long and storied career with the E Street Band.
In addition to the sax, Clarence also backed the band with the tambourine, penny whistle, flute, and percussion.
Between breaks from Bruce and the Band, Clarence would lend his sound to many other well-known musicians, including Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Janis Ian, Paul Young, Gary U.S. Bonds, Todd Rundgren, Ringo Starr, and, most recently, Lady Gaga. He provided the sax for Aretha Franklin’s 1985 Top Ten hit “Freeway of Love” and had a Top 20 hit single that same year, “You’re a Friend of Mine,” a duet with Jackson Browne. He released several solo albums in addition to those created with his own band, Red Bank Rockers, and the group Temple of Soul.
Clarence also tried his hand at acting, appearing in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York as well as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Blues Brothers 2000. His TV credits include “Nash Bridges” and HBO’s “The Wire.” The Nick Mead-directed documentary, Who Do I Think I Am? A Portrait of a Journey, chronicled Clarence’s multiple trips through China in 2002-03. His autobiography, Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales, was published in 2009.
A self-described “spiritual seeker,” Clarence was married five times and was the father of four sons: Clarence III, Charles, Christopher, and Jarod. His nephew, Jake Clemons, would go on to play with the E Street Band in 2012.
Clarence died on June 18, 2011, following complications from a massive stroke suffered just six days before. In his eulogy, Bruce asked, “How big was the Big Man? Too big to die.”