Clarence Clemons, Springsteen’s Saxophone ‘Big Man,’ Dies at 69

Saxophonist Clarence Clemons
Clarence Clemons speaks during a news conference at Super Bowl XVLII in Tampa, Florida in 2009. Photographer: Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist known as the “Big Man” who had been a featured performer with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band since the 1970s, has died. He was 69.

Clemons died of complications from a stroke that he suffered on June 12, according to a statement posted on Springsteen’s website. He lived in Singer Island, Florida, near Palm Beach, at the time of his death.

Springsteen first met him in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where he and Clemons performed in local nightclubs. He joined the band in time for its first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” released in 1973.

The cover of 1975’s “Born to Run” album was dominated by a photograph of Clemons and Springsteen that showcased their bond as people as well as musicians. The song “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” from the album referred to him: “When the change was made uptown / and the Big Man joined the band.”

“Clarence lived a wonderful life,” Springsteen said in the statement. “He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage.”

The stroke followed spinal fusion surgery and hip and knee replacements. The knee surgery left him unable to walk for three months before appearing with the band at Super Bowl XLIII in 2009. This year, a hand injury kept him from playing before Game 2 of the National Basketball Association finals.

Started at Nine

Clemons also had a solo career and worked with Aretha Franklin, Lady Gaga and other artists. He co-wrote a partly fictionalized memoir, “The Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales,” and acted in movies and on television.

Clarence Anicholas Clemons Jr. was born on Jan. 11, 1942, in Norfolk, Virginia. Nick, a shortened version of his middle name, appeared as a nickname on the back cover of Springsteen’s second album, “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.”

Clemons was the oldest of three children of Nick Sr., who owned a fish market, and Thelma, a housewife. They bought his first saxophone as a gift when he was nine years old and paid for music lessons. The sax was an alto, and he later moved to tenor. He also sang with a family gospel group.

His talents weren’t limited to music. Clemons played football in high school and at Maryland State College, now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He attended Maryland State on a football scholarship and was a teammate of Emerson Boozer, who later played with the New York Jets.

Door Blows Away

After college, Clemons moved to New Jersey, where he worked as a corrections officer and youth counselor and played semipro football. His pursuit of a National Football League career ended because of injuries suffered in an auto accident the day before a tryout with the Cleveland Browns.

Clemons performed with several bands along the Jersey Shore. In 1970, he ended up with Norman Seldin and the Joyful Noyze, one of the area’s biggest acts at the time. His fateful meeting with Springsteen occurred the next year at the Student Prince nightclub, on a break from a show with Seldin.

“I had my saxophone with me, and when I walked in this club -- no lie -- a gust of wind blew the door down the street,” Clemons told People magazine. “I say, ‘I want to play. Can I sit in?’ Bruce says, ‘Hey, you can do anything you want.’”

The first song he played was an early version of “Spirit in the Night,” which later appeared on “Greetings.” The debut album featured his sax on that song as well as “Blinded by the Light.” By the time of its release, Clemons had left Seldin and joined the E Street Band.

Solo Successes

Clemons toured and played with the band until 1989, when Springsteen fired its members and started working with other musicians. He returned when the group was reformed a decade later, and his last tour ended in 2009.

As a solo artist, Clemons released seven albums, starting with 1983’s “Rescue.” His debut featured the Red Bank Rockers, named for Red Bank, New Jersey, a town near Asbury Park where he owned a nightclub called Big Man’s West from 1981 to 1983.

“Hero” (1985), his second solo album, produced a top-20 single in “You’re a Friend of Mine.” The song was performed as a duet between Clemons and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. Daryl Hannah, an actress who was then Browne’s girlfriend, made a cameo appearance on vocals.

After two more solo albums, “A Night with Mr. C” (1989) and “Peacemaker” (1995), Clemons fronted a band known as the Temple of Soul. The group released two live albums recorded in Asbury Park and a studio recording, “Brothers in Arms.”

Movies and Television

Clemons also recorded a 1995 album with Aja Kim, another singer-songwriter, called “Get It On” that was released only in Japan. The duo was billed as Aja & the Big Man.

Lady Gaga included Clemons solos on “Hair” and “Edge of Glory” from her second album, “Born This Way,” released this year. He also performed with her band on the season finale of TV’s “American Idol.”

These appearances were part of a career as a sideman that began in the 1970s. He played on Franklin’s “Freeway of Love,” a No. 3 single on Billboard magazine’s chart in 1985, as well as albums by the Four Tops and Roy Orbison.

Clemons was a trumpet player in “New York, New York,” a 1977 musical that was directed by Martin Scorsese. His TV acting included appearances on HBO’s series “The Wire” in 2004, where he played the organizer of a youth program.

In 2009, he became an author with the help of a TV writer and producer, Don Reo. They co-wrote “Big Man,” a memoir that featured his storytelling as well as his biography. He was also the subject of a documentary film, “Who Do I Think I Am? A Portrait of a Journey,” released this year.

Clemons was married five times and had four sons, Clarence III, Charles, Christopher and Jarod. His children and his fifth wife, Victoria, are among his survivors.

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