Car accidents have put an end to many a promising music career (Harry Chapin, anybody?) but it would be extraordinary for one to create one. And that might be the case with the extraordinary man we remember today, Clarence Clemons. The sax player for Bruce Springsteen passed away 10 years ago today in Florida, a few days after having a massive stroke. The “Big Man” was 69 years old.
Clemons grew up in a musical, but also religious Virginia household. His granddad was a Baptist minister, so Gospel music was the dominant one in his childhood home. There was a love of music however, and at age nine, his dad gave him his first saxophone for a gift, and sent Clarence to lessons. He exceled at the alto sax he was given, and later a baritone one when he joined a high school band. However, he also loved sport, and being a “Big” lad – 6’4” and 240 pounds even as a youth – he was a great football player too. This is where the car wreck comes in. He had a tryout arranged with the Dallas Cowboys, and presumably expected to become an NFL player, but he was in an accident the day before. This caused injuries which scuttled the tryout and effectively ended his football days. Plan B, music.
He’d already played a little in a James Brown tribute band by the end of his college days, and in the mid-’60s he started his own band which was popular enough in the bar scene between the Chesapeake Bay and New York. The turning point was a rainy night in 1971. He was playing in one club in Asbury Park, New Jersey while a very young Bruce Springsteen was playing nearby. They had common acquaintances and Clarence knew of Springsteen, so “on a break between sets, I walked over there…I’m a Baptist, remember, so this is the truth!” He told an interviewer he went to the other club, accidentally pulled the screen door off opening it in a storm and “the band was on stage, but were staring at me, framed in the doorway. Maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous, because I just said ‘I want to play in your band!’ and he said “sure, do anything you want.’” The pair soon began jamming together and when Bruce began to tour in 1972, Clarence was an integral part of his backing E Street Band.
The pair became not only musical collaborators, but close friends. “We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives,” Clemons would say. And of course, they were missing links in each other’s music. Clemons’ sax solos and flourishes added the extra touch to so many Springsteen songs from “Jungleland” to “Thunder Road” to even “The Boss’” Christmas classic “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” It was indeed one of the touches that elevated Springsteen above so many other classic rock troubadours. “He gave everything he had, every night,” Springsteen said of him.
Outside of the Boss and the E Street Band, Clarence kept busy. He took a few roles acting in movies (one of the “three most important people in the world” in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, for example) and he had his own nightclub in Red bank, New Jersey. Along the way he put out three solo records as well, the most successful being the 1985 release Hero, which included the single “You’re A Friend of Mine”, with Jackson Browne (not to mention Browne’s then girlfriend Daryl Hannah) on it.
Upon his death, Bruce said “Clarence led a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people, that made them love him. He loved our fans.” Eddie Vedder, hearing of his death played “Better Man” with the chorus changed to “Bigger man” as a tribute to him in a Pearl Jam show that night, and the next day Bon Jovi played a version of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” as a tribute while pictures of Clarence flashed on the screen behind them. Soon artists as varied as Lady Gaga, the Gaslight Anthem and Jimmy Buffett all performed their own tributes… proving that Clemons was a Big Man in more ways than one.