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Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011

Remembering rock's greatest saxophonist

Jun. 22, 2011
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The first time I saw Clarence Clemons, he gave me a sharp poke in the shoulder and told me I'd better wait for his boss. I didn't know who he was, but he was too damn big to poke back with any kind of authority.

I also didn't know that his boss was The Boss, and that I would be driving Bruce Springsteen and Miami Steve Van Zandt in my Checker Cab from Madison's Sheraton Hotel across town to the old Hilldale Theater to see the re-release of American Graffiti. It was 1978, I was a UW student and it was a good fare. I decided to wait, mostly because a big man told me I should.

The next night I again saw The Big Man, as I eventually learned he was called by name if not description, on stage at the old Coliseum, now the Alliant Energy Center and still across the street from the Sheraton. Darkness at the Edge of Town had just been released, and in the cab the night before, Van Zandt spent most of his time consoling Springsteen about not selling enough seats for the show. (“This is the Midwest and you've got to expect not to sell as many tickets as REO Speedwagon,” he counseled.)

But that was the night before. Now I was watching the first of many high-energy E Street Band rave-ups I would see in my life, with one amazing tenor sax player adding the sweetest voice to the whole noisy proceedings. In those days reeds were just beginning to show up in rock bands. Clemons set the standard.

And now The Big Man has passed on, succumbing to complications from a stroke on June 18 in Palm Beach, Fla., where he made his home. He was 69.

“Clarence lived a wonderful life,” Springsteen said in a statement to the press. “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.”

What Springsteen didn't say is what a loss his presence will be to the E Street Band. Clemons was more than his saxophone. He was Springsteen's counterpart and, with the exception of The Boss himself, the biggest star on stage.

Clemons grew out of a gospel background. Born in Norfolk, Va., he was the son of a fish market owner and grandson of a Baptist preacher who got his first sax at age 9, a gift from his father. King Curtis and James Brown were early influences, and he showed a passion for performing even while attending Maryland State College on both music and football scholarships. He was still playing music when he moved to Newark, N.J., and took a job as a counselor for emotionally disturbed children.

Clemons' meeting with Springsteen, immortalized in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” became the stuff of legend. The way the sax man tells it, he was playing with a band in Asbury Park when he heard that Springsteen was playing up the street and decided to drop by between sets. It was the proverbial dark and stormy night and, when Clemons opened the club's door, the wind tore it off its hinges and blew it away, leaving the large man framed in the doorway.

“I want to play in your band,” Clemons reportedly told a thunderstruck Springsteen.

“Sure, you do anything you want,” Springsteen replied.

Clemons went on to play with Aretha Franklin, Jackson Browne and a host of other artists. He appeared in movies, including Martin Scorsese's New York, New York, was married five times, fathered four sons and started Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring music education in public schools. But his contributions to Springsteen remain his legacy.

I still think back to the night he poked me. I got called to pick up Springsteen and Van Zandt after the movie, took them to a convenience store, where they bought a grocery bag full of snack food, and took them back to the hotel with a flurry of tip money, autographs and complimentary tickets to the following night's show.

But I didn't see Clemons again, and I'm sorry I didn't. I might have taken the liberty to poke him back, and wouldn't that have been a story to tell.


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