Clarence Clemons 1942-2011

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I woke up today to the sad news that Clarence Clemons,  saxophone player in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band had died at the age of 69 after suffering a stroke last week.

Only 2 members of Springsteen’s E Street Band were there from the start; bass player Garry Tallent and Clarence Clemons.  They both played on “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ” and both were still around when the line-up crystallised around the time of “Darkness on the Edge of Town”.  Clarence Clemons was never a bit-part player in the E Street Band; he was always right up-front as the Boss’s right-hand man and he even got a mention in the lyrics of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” on “Born to Run”, where he featured in the cover shot.

The “Born to Run” album cover is one of the most iconic in rock history.  The album was intended to be the breakthrough for Springsteen and no detail was overlooked in producing the perfect packaging.  The black and white photo which spread over both sides of the gatefold sleeve showed 2 musicians with different skin colours but with an obvious bond which transcended these differences.  It could only work with the Big Man in the picture.

Clarence Clemons wasn’t always involved in Springsteen’s studio work because, like Neil Young, the Boss needed to do things differently sometimes; there isn’t a lot of scope for happy horn parts on “Nebraska” or “The Ghost of Tom Joad” but the E Street Band live would always need the Big Man and he would always be there.  Springsteen has played shows (the Super Bowl for example) where he uses a 4-piece horn section, but the Big Man was always there on his right side.

Most of Clemons’ work with the E Street Band was in competition with a standard rock line-up plus 2 keyboards, an extra guitar (or 2) and the drumming of Max Weinberg which meant that at times he seemed to be trying to blow the keys off his saxophone to cut through the wall of sound with his solos but there was much more than that to his playing.  On “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, he slotted in perfectly well to a brass quintet while on “Spirit in the Night” on the first album, he carried the main riff of the song with a very gentle delivery.  If you want to hear the best of the Big Man, you should really listen to the “Hammersmith Odeon 1975” album.  It sounds like a bunch of musicians at the top of their game playing for fun and having a great time.

Clarence Clemons suffered from a variety of serious health problems involving major spinal and knee surgery over the last 2 years but none of these setbacks stopped him from turning up to the day job (even, at the Super Bowl show in a wheelchair).  It’s a tribute to the man’s presence to say that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the E Street Band without him.

RIP Big Man.