Clarence Clemons: Saxophonist with The E Street Band who shaped the sound of Bruce Springsteen
Monday 20 June 2011
In 1975, the rock photographer Eric Meola took nearly a thousand photographs of Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band for the cover of the album, Born To Run.
The one spread over the front and back of the gatefold sleeve showed Springsteen, guitar in hand, leaning on his saxophonist, Clarence Clemons and it conveyed a wonderful aura of friendship and dependence, which was certainly a feature of the music. Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons were born to run.
Clarence Clemons was born in Norfolk, Virginia on 11 January 1942. His parents owned a fish market and his grandfather was a minister, and the young boy was intrigued by the gospel music he heard in church. Clemons was a good football player and was offered a trial with the Cleveland Browns, but a car accident put paid to that.
While in London making the film, Swing, in 1998, Clemons told me how he became a musician, "My father bought me a saxophone for Christmas when I was nine years old, but I wanted an electric train. I was very disappointed until I heard King Curtis with the Coasters, but I wasn't allowed to play rock'n'roll while my grandfather was around. My father had bought me an alto but I found what I wanted in the tenor."
Clemons trained as a counsellor for disturbed children and although he worked in that capacity until 1970, he played music in his spare time. From 1961 to 1965, he played in the Vibratones, a bar band in New Jersey doing James Brown covers. In the early 70s, he was playing with a New Jersey rock act, Norman Seldin and the Joyful Noyze.
He heard about Bruce Springsteen who, rather than do cover songs, was winning audiences round with his own material. The meeting of Springsteen and Clemons in September 1971 has become legendary, not least because Springsteen told of their meeting in "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out". "It was a magical thing," said Clemons, "He was searching for something and I was searching for something and we found it in each other."
Springsteen's début album Greetings From Asbury Park was released in January 1973. Clive Davis, the head of CBS, wanted to promote Springsteen as "the new Dylan", but Dylan never had Clemons wailing on "Blinded By The Light" and "Spirit In The Night". This was followed later in the year by The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle, which included another favourite, "Asbury Park Fourth Of July (Sandy)".
The first two albums built up a following for Springsteen and everything exploded with Born To Run (1975) with intense playing from the E Street Band and full Phil Spector-like orchestrations. "'Born To Run' itself was a very good song when Bruce played it acoustically," said Clemons, "but it came to life when the whole band was playing and the drone of that sax is behind it all. The song had a great message – get out and sort out your life – but I needed a lot of energy to play like that. I almost died playing those long sustained baritone notes. I said, 'That's it, no more cigarettes!'"
Although Born To Run was massively successful, Springsteen found himself in dispute with his manager, Mike Appel. As a result, this passionately creative man was not able to record for three years. Instead he devoted himself to live performance and his shows with the E Street Band could last over three hours. Springsteen would incorporate his favourite covers into the set and the glorious "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" was captured live with a spontaneous rap between Springsteen and Clemons over what they want for Christmas. Its joie de vivre shows Clemons' importance as an on-stage foil for Springsteen.
In 1978, Springsteen released Darkness At The Edge Of Town, which was less showy than Born To Run but similarly intense. Clemons was showcased on the powerful "Badlands".
The E Street Band backed Ronnie Spector on a Billy Joel song, "Say Goodbye To Hollywood" (1977) and they rescued the fading career of Gary US Bonds, like Clemons, a native of Norfolk, Virginia. Clemons played on his albums, Dedication (1981) and On The Line (1982). When Clemons became part of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band in 1990, he performed a rap version of Bonds' hit, "Quarter To Three".
In 1985 Clemons had a US Top 20 hit with "You're A Friend Of Mine", which he made with Jackson Browne. He released several solo albums including Rescue (1983), Hero (1985), A Night With Mr C (1989), Peacemaker (1995) and Brothers In Arms (2008), but described them as "the best kept secret in the rock'n'roll industry". His many sessions included Aretha Franklin, Twisted Sister, Zucchero and Lady Gaga.
In 1984, Springsteen released Born In The USA, a look at his blue collar roots and the nature of patriotism. Clemons was featured on the hit single, "Dancing In The Dark". Clemons only sang backing vocals on Tunnel Of Love (1987). Although Clemons was an important part of Springsteen's live act, Springsteen often found himself writing songs that did not call for horns and eventually he disbanded the E Street Band in favour of other projects. Clemons returned to Springsteen in the last decade and he was featured on The Rising (2002) which Springsteen made in the wake of 9/11.
Clemons appeared in many films, having a role in New York, New York (1977), which was directed by Martin Scorsese. He said, "I found Robert DeNiro was as intense about acting as Bruce was about music, and I learnt a lot from him. He did tell me 'Stay away from television' but I haven't done that." Clemons appeared in The Simpsons, The System and The Wire.
The last years were difficult for Clemons as he had hip, knee and back complaints and even joint replacements was not wholly successful. He wanted to tour but he found it difficult. His autobiography, Big Man: Real Life And Tall Tales, was published in 2009 and on stage in Glasgow, Springsteen introduced him in Glasgow as "the biggest Scotsman you've ever seen."
When I met Clemons in 1998, he told me that he had two weekly residencies in bars in Florida and he enjoyed that as much as playing in stadiums. If someone, anyone, wanted to get up and jam with him, that was fine. There clearly was kindness and humility in this great saxophone player.
Clarence Anicholas Clemons, singer, saxophonist: born Norfolk, Virginia: 11 January 1942; married five times, four sons; died Palm Beach, Florida, 18 June 2011.
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