Saxophonist, singer, songwriter
For almost two decades Clarence Clemons was the source of the driving tenor saxophone riffs in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Known as the King of the World, the Master of Disaster, and especially the Big Man, Clemons provided energetic backup vocals and music on many of Springsteen’s best-selling albums. Onstage, the towering Clemons proved the perfect counterpart to the wiry Springsteen throughout years of hectic touring. Down Beat contributor Don Palmer noted in 1984 that the Big Man was “the troubleshooter, the enforcer, a bloodline to the [rhythm and blues] ancestors” and offered “legitimacy and a sense of cohesion for what might otherwise be just another band trying to cover an attitude.”
Clemons’s long dedication to the E Street Band has not hampered his solo career, however. Since 1981 he has been cutting albums on his own, and he has worked with other rock and roll and rhythm and blues entertainers as well. Freed from his commitment to the E Street Band in 1989, Clemons was even more excited about forging his own signature style. He noted in the Phoenix Gazette at the time that working with Springsteen had a number of drawbacks. “I was constantly in a shadow,” he recalled. “I wasn’t playing what I wanted to hear; it was always what [Springsteen] wanted to hear.… That’s not what I want to do in my life; I didn’t want to be a dwindling sideman. So I’m pretty happy … now. [Leaving the E Street Band] gives me the opportunity to go out and become Clarence Clemons.”
The oldest of three children, Clemons was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1942. His parents were hardworking and deeply religious, and the youngster sang in the church choir and with a family gospel group. “I grew up fast because I had to,” Clemons remarked in Down Beat. “My father owned a fish market, and I helped him in the shop. We lived 15 miles from school, so I’d get up in the morning, go to school, and work at the market or deliver fish after school. It was late, and I was tired by the time I got home at night. This went on every day. I also had a lot of responsibilities for the family because my mother was going to school. She graduated from college at the same time I finished high school. I tell you, I didn’t have much time for childhood innocence.”
One Christmas, Clemons asked for an electric train and got a Pan American alto saxophone instead. “I’d never even seen a saxophone before, and didn’t really know why [my father] gave it to me,” he told Down Beat. Clemons’s father also enrolled him in private music lessons at a nearby state college. “My dad made me practice in the backroom of the store, while the other
For the Record…
Born in 1942 in Norfolk, VA; son of Clarence (a fish market owner) and Thelma Clemons; married second wife, Christina, c. 1981; children: (first marriage) Clarence III, Charles, (second marriage) Christopher. Education: Attended Maryland State College (now University of Maryland, Eastern Shore).
Saxophone player, singer, and songwriter, 1962—. Janesburg Training School for Boys, Newark, NJ, counselor, c. 1962-70. Saxophone player with band Joyful Noise, Asbury Park, NJ, c. 1968-70; joined E Street Band, led by Bruce Springsteen, 1971-89. Formed the Red Bank Rockers, 1981; signed with Columbia Records; released first album, Rescue, c. 1982. Sax player and vocalist in numerous bands, including the Grateful Dead and Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia Records, 1801 Century Park West, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
kids were out playing baseball, and I hated it,” Clemons said. “He had the noisiest fish market in Norfolk.”
In high school Clemons had two loves—saxophone and football. He switched to baritone sax and played in the Crestwood High School jazz band. His religious background shielded him somewhat from exposure to the early development of rock and roll, but he eventually heard the vibrant tenor saxophone work of R & B artist King Curtis. “In my senior year of high school, I heard King Curtis,” Clemons remembered in Down Beat. “He turned me on, and it was then that I decided I wanted to play tenor. His sound and tone were so big on those sessions he did, and his feeling was right from the heart. Here was a guy who gave me something.”
Clemons attended Maryland State College on a music and football scholarship. He majored in sociology, but his ambition was to become a professional football player. He continued playing the saxophone, and during summer breaks he often signed on to play with combos or larger ensembles, working with such outfits as the Vibratones, the Newark Bears, and the Jersey Generals. He quit college just before graduating and moved north to Newark, New Jersey, where he became a counselor for emotionally disturbed children. While holding the day job he spent many nights jamming in various bands along the Jersey Shore.
Clemons was working with a group called Joyful Noise—performing principally R & B covers—when his path crossed Bruce Springsteen’s. Both artists were playing in Asbury Park, New Jersey, at bars about a city block apart. One rainy night, Clemons strolled down to take in Springsteen’s show. The Big Man recounted the event in People magazine: “I had my saxophone with me, and when I walked in this club—no lie—a gust of wind just blew the door down the street. Boof! I say, ‘I want to play. Can I sit in?’ Bruce says, ‘Hey, you can do anything you want. Take a couple of background singers, anything.’ I sat in with him that night. It was phenomenal. We’d never even laid eyes on each other, but after that first song, he looked at me, I looked at him, and we said, ‘This is it.’ After that I was stoked.”
Though his decision contributed to the demise of his first marriage, Clemons quit his job and joined the E Street Band. “I was making like $15 a week with Bruce then,” he told People. “Had no place to stay. But I had faith. It was like following Jesus.”
Clemons’s faith was well-founded. After a few exploratory albums, Springsteen and the E Street Band’s hit LP Born to Run went platinum and the group became—in the eyes of critics and fans alike—the premier American rock band of the 1970s. “Since 1973 the Springsteen/Clemons partnership has reaped great rewards and created insightful, high energy rock & roll,” declared Don Palmer in Down Beat in 1984. “Their music, functioning like the blues from which it originated, chronicled the fears, aspirations, and limitations of suburban youth. Unlike many musicians today, Springsteen and Clemons were more interested in the heart and substance rather than the glamour of music.”
From the recording booth to the stage, the Clemons-Springsteen partnership fairly seethed with vitality. Analyzing his place in the band in 1984, Clemons told Palmer: “The sax adds color to situations, and it has that urgency. Bruce allows me a certain space within which I’m free to do whatever I want, and we interact so well together that it’s no problem backing him. On stage, we can dance around and play off each other, which gives the crowd a show and generates energy.”
In what little free time he could find while working with Springsteen, Clemons formed his own band, the Red Bank Rockers, and signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. When his schedule allowed, he cut tracks for a debut album, Rescue, and performed at his own night club, Big Man’s West, in Red Bank, New Jersey. He occasionally offered saxophone backup on the recordings of other noted artists, including Aretha Franklin’s well-received Freeway of Love album. Always somewhat in the shadow of Springsteen’s super-stardom, the Big Man nonetheless began to assert his independence and to search for a sound that would validate his rock and roll calling.
As the 1980s wore on, Clemons made some changes in his personal lifestyle while still maintaining his professional pace. Once a perpetual party animal, he swore off alcohol and took an interest in Eastern religion and meditation. The saxophonist continued to record and tour with the E Street Band, but he also cut his own albums, took occasional television roles, and jammed with other groups. He even made it to the Top Twenty in 1988, with a Jackson Browne duet, “You’re a Friend of Mine.”
In 1989 Clemons joined an impromptu group led by ex-Beatle Ringo Starr. Billed as Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, the group also included Dr. John, Billy Preston, Rick Danko, Joe Walsh, Nils Lofgren, Levon Helm, and Jim Keltner. The troupe enjoyed a successful American tour in the fall of 1989; Clemons pointed out in the Phoenix Gazette that the association was “one of the most joyous times of my life.” While touring in Japan with Starr, Clemons received a telephone call from Springsteen, informing him that he would no longer be needed in the E Street Band.
“[Springsteen] said he wanted to try something new, do something different,” Clemons explained in the Phoenix Gazette. “It was quite a shock; you go through all the emotions of a divorce, all the emotions, instantly. I didn’t say much to him. I just said, ‘Good luck.’ But before long I started to see the good side.”
The “good side” for Clemons meant expanded opportunities to jam with other groups—including Starr’s ensemble and the Grateful Dead—and the freedom to pursue his solo career without interruption. His albums have drawn reviewers’ praise and have explored rock, old rhythm and blues standards, and high-tech dance music. Although he has become more comfortable as a singer, Clemons is still most at home with his saxophone. “I know that the tenor can affect people because it is an emotive instrument,” he told Down Beat. “It’s so strong the way you can come in on tenor. Because of my size, the tenor is a lot easier for me to play. It’s just a natural extension of me, of my personality, and I’m a positive person.” He concluded: “The thing about it is that the tenor can be played in two totally different ways. I play it with a positive energy because I want to give something to the audience, and it should be something good.”
With Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band; on Columbia Records
Greetings From Asbury Park, 1973.
The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, 1973.
Born to Run, 1975.
Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978.
The River, 1980.
Born in the U.S.A., 1984.
Tunnel of Love, 1987.
Other; on Columbia Records
(With the Red Bank Rockers) Rescue.
(With Ian Hunter) All of the Good Ones Are Taken.
A Night With Mr. C, 1989.
Marsh, Dave, Born To Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, Doubleday, 1979.
Akron Beacon Journal, December 18, 1989.
Daily News (Los Angeles), September 1, 1989.
Down Beat, April 1984.
People, November 4, 1985; October 16, 1989.
Phoenix Gazette, February 6, 1990.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Clemons, Clarence 1942–
Clarence Clemons 1942–
Clarence Clemons, known to his fans as “the Big Man,” earned his reputation as a saxophonist extraordinaire during his 20-year stint with Bruce Sprinsteen’s E Street Band. His urban sound, vivid and bright, connected “the Boss” to 1950s’ rock-n-roll and 1960s’ soul. But Clemons’ artistic touch reached beyond the famed E-Street Band. In the early 1980s he toured and recorded with his own band, and loaned his distinct style to the recordings of Joe Cocker, Janis Ian, and Nils Lofgren. Clemons also began working as an actor during the 1970s, making appearances on television programs like Nash Bridges and in movies like Blues Brothers 2000.
Clemons was born in Norfolk, Virginia, on January 11, 1942, the grandson of a Baptist minister, and moved to northern New Jersey during the mid-1960s. He began playing the saxophone when he was nine and was influenced by R&B artists like King Curtis and Junior Walker. “Those blues chord changes woke me up to something lying dormant inside me,” Clemons told C. Bottomley and Jim Macnie at VH1 Online. “My uncle bought me a King Curtis album and my life changed.” Clemons played minor league football with the Newark Bears and was on his way to a professional career with the Cleveland Browns when injuries from an automobile accident put an end to his aspirations, demons also worked as a counselor for disturbed boys for eight years.
In 1973 Clemons’ life changed when he joined Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. “It was a rainy, windy night,” Clemons recalled to the Ottawa Sun, of his first meeting with the Boss. “When I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew down the street. The band were [sic] staring at me onstage. I think Bruce was nervous, because when I said ’I want to play with your band,’ he just answered, ’Sure, anything you want.’” The band maintained a grueling schedule over the next four years, touring and recording, but made little money. This changed abruptly with the release of Born to Run in 1975. The title track became a hit, and critics praised the band’s intense, three-hour concerts.
The E Street Band wasn’t just the typical back-up band, but the cornerstone of Springsteen’s sound. “The E Street Band was part of a package,” wrote Seth Rogovoy in the Rogovy Report, “a myth which said that through dint of sheer effort a hard-working, blue-collar
Born on January 11, 1942, in Norfolk, VA.
Career: Saxophonist, 1971–; performed with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, 1971–89, 1999–; performed and recorded with the Red Bank Rockers, 1980s, and the Temple of Soul, 1990s-.
Addresses: Office —Long Distance Entertainment, 568 East Woolbright Road, Suite 234, Boynton Beach, FL 33435.
bar band from the Jersey shore could become the biggest rock ’n’ roll group in the world.” It is demons’ shoulder that Springsteen leans against on the cover of Born to Run, and Clemons’ solo on “Born to Run” that drives the song forward. In Peter Gambaccini’s book, Bruce Springsteen, the author quoted Springsteen as saying, “Clarence is his sax. Sometimes you can’t tell where Clarence ends and his sax begins.” Clemons’ stature grew as the band reached an even larger audience during the 1980s, following the release of Born in the U.S.A. The tour that followed the album also included a theatrical stage kiss between Springsteen and demons after the performance of “Thunder Road.”
While Clemons continued to play in the E Street Band during the early 1980s, he recorded his first solo album in 1983. “I love the responsibility of fronting my own band,” Clemons told Denis Armstrong in the Ottawa Sun. “Creating my own audience is fun, developing my own ideas and carving out my own space. Everyone likes to leave their own footprints in the sands of time.” In 1985 he released Hero, an album that helped establish the saxophonist as an artist in his own right. “It’s great to see a musician step from the shadows of a legend and make a mark on his own,” wrote Joe Viglione in All Music Guide, “and Clarence Clemons does that remarkably well here.” The album also included a vocal by Jackson Browne that reached the Top 20 in 1985. In 1989 Clemons followed with Night with Mr. C, an album that offered a synthesis of new and old styles.
In 1989 Clemons and the other members of the E Street Band received a shock when Springsteen decided to continue recording and touring without the band. “It’s like losing a friend,” Clemons told Marilyn Beck in the Los Angeles Daily News. “We all just hope he’s happy.” Clemons, along with other band members, were puzzled by their dismissal. “I felt estranged for some reason, for the fact that things changed,” Clemons told Kate Meyers in Entertainment Weekly.
Despite disappointment, Clemons nonetheless understood the need for a change. “He’s done this before,” Clemons told Beck. “Others, like Billy Joel and Tom Petty, have gone solo for a while, and then gone back with their bands. It’s very healthy.”
Clemons also pursued a number of side projects. He continued to play with his band, Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers, and he toured with Ringo Star and the Jerry Garcia Band. He also busied himself with session work, loaning his saxophone sound to recordings by Aretha Franklin, Alvin Lee, and Roy Orbison. He continued his acting career, appearing in several television series including Viper and The Sentinel, and playing multiple roles on the big screen in such films as Fatal Instinct and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
In late 1998 rumors spread of an E Street Band reunion. In March of 1999, tour dates were announced, and the reunion kicked off with two surprise shows at Convention Hall in Asbury Park. Critics were quick to note that the band had lost none of its prowess during its ten-year absence, “demons’ sax work displays nuances and noodlings that were absent from his bombastic style in the ’70s and ’80s,” noted Time. Clemons also continued to work with his new band, the Temple of Soul, releasing Live in Asbury Park in 2002. “My new album could be visualized,” Clemons told Daniel Rothbart in NY Arts, “as Park Avenue meets South Beach.” Through both his work with Springsteen and his own bands, Clemons gives everything he has to each new performance, living up to his nickname, “the Big Man.” “I don’t care if there are five people in the audience or 100,000,” he told Bottomley and Macnie, “I’ll always give 110%.”
Rescue, Columbia, 1983.
Hero, Columbia, 1985.
Night with Mr. C, Columbia, 1989.
Live in Asbury Park, Valley, 2002.
Gambaccini, Peter, Bruce Springsteen, Perigee Books, 1979, 1985; p. 67.
Entertainment Weekly, May 15, 1992, p. 14.
Los Angeles Daily News, November 27, 1989, p. L19.
Time, July 12, 1999, p. 69.
“Clarence Clemons,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (July 15, 2003).
“Clarence Clemons,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (July 15, 2003).
“Clarence Clemons: Larger Than Life,” VH1, www.vhl.com/ (July 15, 2003).
“Clarence Clemons: The Big Man takes the spotlight,” Rogovoy Report, www.berkshireweb.com/rogovoy/thebeat/beat0522.html (July 15, 2003).
“From the Devil’s Music to the Temple of Soul,” NY Arts, www.nyartsmagazine.com (July 15, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.