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Clarence Clemons, 2009
*Clarence Clemons was born on this date in 1942. He was a Black musician.
Clarence Anicholas Clemons was from Norfolk, VA. His father owned a fish market and his grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher. Although he grew up surrounded by gospel music, the young Clemons was captivated by rock ’n’ roll. He was given an alto saxophone at age 9 as a Christmas gift; later, following the influence of King Curtis whose many credits include the jaunty sax part on the Coasters’ 1958 hit “Yakety Yak” he switched to the tenor.
“I grew up with a very religious background,” he once said in an interview. “I got into the soul music, but I wanted to rock. I was a rocker. I was a born rock ’n’ roll sax player.” Clemons was also a gifted athlete, and he attended Maryland State College (now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore) on a scholarship for football and music. He tried out for the Dallas Cowboys and the Cleveland Browns, but a knee injury ended his hopes for a football career. He was working as a youth counselor in Newark when he began to mix with the Jersey Shore music scene of the late 1960s and early ’70s. He was older than Bruce Springsteen and most of his future band mates, and he often commented on the oddity even the liability of being a racially integrated group in those days.
“You had your black bands and you had your white bands,” he wrote in his memoir, “and if you mixed the two you found less places to play.” But the match was strong from the start, and his saxophone soon became a focal point of the group’s sound. Clemons’s first encounter with Springsteen has become E Street Band lore. In most tellings, a lightning storm was rolling through Asbury Park one night in 1971 while Springsteen was playing a gig there. As Clemons entered the bar, the wind blew the door off its hinges, and Springsteen was startled by the towering shadow at the door.
Then Clemons invited himself onstage to play along, and they clicked. “I swear I will never forget that moment,” Clemons later recalled in an interview. “I felt like I was supposed to be there. It was a magical moment. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and we fell in love. And that’s still there.” From the beginnings of the E Street Band in 1972, Clemons played a central part in Springsteen’s music, complementing the group’s electric guitar and driving rhythms in songs like “Born to Run” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” with muscular, melodic saxophone hooks that echoed doo-wop, soul and early rock ’n’ roll.
But equally important to the group’s image was the sense of affection and unbreakable camaraderie between Springsteen and his sax man. Few E Street Band shows were complete without a shaggy-dog story about the stormy night the two men met at a bar in Asbury Park, N.J., or a long bear hug between them at the end of the night. Clemons towered over Springsteen at 6 feet 4 inches and about 250 pounds his nickname was the Big Man and for most of its history, he stood out as the sole black man in a white, working-class New Jersey rock band. (The keyboardist David Sancious, who is also Black, played with the group until 1974.)
“When you look at just the cover of ‘Born to Run,’ you see a charming photo, a good album cover, but when you open it up and see Clarence and me together, the album begins to work its magic,” Springsteen wrote in a foreword to “Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales,” Clemons’s semi fictional memoir from 2009, written with Don Reo. “Who are these guys? Where did they come from? What is the joke they are sharing?” In 1985, Clemons found Solo music fame, he had a Top 20 hit with “You’re a Friend of Mine,” on which he sang with Jackson Browne, and played saxophone on records by Aretha Franklin and Twisted Sister. In 2011 he was featured on Lady Gaga’s album “Born This Way.” Clemons also became something of a celebrity in his own right, acting in Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” and other films, and on television shows like “Diff’rent Strokes,” and jamming with President Bill Clinton at the 1993 inaugural ball.
He was married five times and divorced four. His fifth wife, Victoria, survived him, as do four sons: Clarence Jr., Charles, Christopher and Jarod. Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, one of rock’s most beloved sidemen, died on June 18, 2011 at a hospital in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 69. The cause was complications of a stroke he suffered the week before at his home in Singer Island, Fla. In a statement released the following Saturday night, Springsteen called Clemons “my great friend, my partner.