clarence clemons, 1942-2011

clarence clemons

clarence clemons

The Big Man has left the building.

Clarence Clemons, the mighty saxophone voice in Bruce Springsteen’s famed E Street Band, died yesterday at age 69 from complications relating to a stroke suffered a week earlier.

Where do we start? Clemons was a rock ‘n’ roll titan, an artist that filled out an image that was purposely larger than life. A disciple of the great rock and soul sax men that came before him (the most prominent being King Curtis), he became more than an accent in Springsteen’s music. He was his foil and sidekick. To call him Springsteen’s blood brother is not overstating the case.

One can credit Clemons for co-piloting one of the great bi-racial rock teams of all time. But his alliance with Springsteen never seemed that premeditated. He was a teammate, pure and simple – and an obvious friend. The bond Clemons and Springsteen shared, especially onstage, was immediate and infectious. Audiences couldn’t help but love him. He was, in all senses, The Big Man – or, as Springsteen continued to introduce him even in recent E Street Band shows, “the biggest man you will ever see.” And when that larger-than-anyone’s-life giant so much as smiled in concert, audiences went wild. That’s how profound the joy was that he cast.

Clemons was not a virtuoso. He never pretended to be one. His playing was powerful but workmanlike with solos that were like quick, potent jabs of rocking soul tradition. The most obvious example of how integral his playing was to Springsteen’s music was the 1975 breakthrough classic Born to Run, the album that featured The Boss on the front cover leaning on the shoulder of Clemons, who filled the entire back cover. And the most obvious song to showcase Clemons was, without question, the mighty Jungleland. In one of the very few extended solos he recorded with Springsteen, Clemons wailed not in flashy extremity, but in powerful, anthemic waves over strings and a steadfast E Street rhythm section.

I have been lucky enough to experience Clemons in concert with Springsteen many times. But the high point came in August 1978, when a high school friend stood in line overnight and managed to score us front row seats for a show at Louisville’s Convention Center. That was the summer of Darkness on the Edge of Town. To this day, nothing matches the pure musical exuberance Springsteen and Clemons displayed that night, whether they were chasing each other in the audience like kids or tearing into Born to Run‘s shattering, Bo Diddley-style party piece She’s the One.

Springsteen’s career will carry on as long as he wishes it to. But if he ever assembles the E Street Band again, the feeling will be forever altered. No single artist will ever fill the colossus profile of The Big Man.

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