The music world lost one of its finest artists over the weekend. Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons died on Saturday at a hospital in Palm Beach, Florida. His death was caused by complications from a stroke he had suffered on June 12th at his home in Florida. Best-known as the saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Clemons was a great musician and a dramatic stage performer. In addition to being a member of the E Street Band, Clemons played with numerous other artists, including Aretha Franklin, Ringo Starr, Jackson Browne and, most recently, Lady Gaga.
Clemons was born on January 11, 1942, in Norfolk, Virginia. He began playing sax as a child, after his father gave him an alto saxophone for Christmas. His father made him practice in a room at his fish store, annoying Clarence, who wanted to be out playing with the other kids. Then, when he was a teenager, he got turned onto the music of King Curtis and other R&B musicians and he switched to tenor sax. He got a music and football scholarship to Maryland State College. In the mid-Sixties, he was going to try out for the Cleveland Browns, but an auto accident the day before his tryout thwarted that plan. “I was looking toward a pro career,” Clemons said in a recent interview, “but God had another plan for me.”
Indeed! In 1972, Clemons went to a bar in Asbury Park, New Jersey, to see a young artist named Bruce Springsteen. “I sat in with him that night,” Clemons said. “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.’” The rest is history. Clemons’ sax playing has been a key component of Springsteen’s music for nearly four decades. And he really was the Big Man. Standing at 6' 2" and weighing around 250 pounds, he had a tremendous stage presence, adding fun and energy to Springsteen’s live shows.
I had the good fortune to spend some time with Clarence over the years. Back in 1988, I accompanied him and Bruce and several other artists on Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! tour, traveling all over the world. Then, during my years at Rolling Stone magazine, I also saw him backstage at numerous concerts. He was an extremely kind and generous man, always making me feel comfortable in the backstage surroundings. Most recently, he loaned one of his saxophones to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum for our Bruce Springsteen exhibit.
Clarence’s death is a tremendous loss. Fortunately, however, his music will live on, and years from now people will still be discovering and enjoying his music. Clarence, we miss you dearly!