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Clarence Clemons dies of complications from stroke

Published: Sunday, June 19, 2011, 5:04 AM     Updated: Sunday, June 19, 2011, 11:45 AM
clarence-clemons.jpgClarence Clemons, who died tonight, performs at Giants Stadium in this 2003 file photo.
He was the spirit of the E Street Band, and the oaken staff that Bruce Springsteen leaned on.

Clarence Clemons — the Big Man with the big horn — died yesterday of complications from a stroke he suffered last weekend. He was 69.

“Clarence lived a wonderful life,” Bruce Springsteen said in a statement last night. “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.”

News of Clemons’ death was first reported last night on nj.com, The Star-Ledger’s real-time news website.

“He was the kahuna of surf and soul and a man that had love in his heart and, always, a smile on his face. He was my brother — my musical brother,” said original E Street Band drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez.

Lopez last saw Clemons when he guested at an E Street Band show in Philadelphia, in 2009. “I was in the dressing room with him, and we were laughing and talking about golfing,” said Lopez.

There have been many charismatic figures in the E Street Band, but none had the personal gravity of Clemons, the group’s Bunyanesque saxophonist.

Springsteen himself acknowledged this, always introducing Clemons last at concerts. It’s Clemons’ big shoulder that Springsteen was looking over lovingly on the famous cover of his “Born to Run” album. As his bandleader beamed at him, Clemons, black-hatted and bold, turned toward the camera and blew his sax.

Clemons seemed to be a character out of a storybook — or better yet, a widescreen movie about the triumph of a romantic gang of rock ’n’ roll renegades. Wildly popular among fans of the E Street Band, he was the sort of larger-than-life figure to whom legends accrued. Recognizing this, Clemons and Springsteen did much to play up those legends: “Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales,” Clemons’ 2009 autobiography written with Don Reo, combined genuine reflections with fiction in an attempt to capture the mythical quality of the musician.

Springsteen’s oft-told story of his initial meeting with Clemons felt biblical: With a lightning storm raging outside, the Big Man tore the door off an Asbury Park club, strode onstage, and made magic. (Springsteen would later immortalize this meeting in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” a song on “Born to Run.”)

Was this embellished? Most likely. But reality never seemed quite big enough to accommodate Clemons.

“Mere facts,” wrote Springsteen in the preface to Clemons’ book, “will never plumb the mysteries of the Big Man.”

MINISTER’S SON

Born in Norfolk, Va., Clemons was the son of a Baptist minister who had no love for raucous rock ’n’ roll. But at the age of 9, his family gave young Clarence an alto saxophone — and soon he discovered his lung power was formidable.

Clarence Clemons
Enlarge Clarence Clemons poses for a photo during an interview Jan. 29, 2003, at his Singer Island, Fla. home. (AP Photo/Hillery Smith Garrison) Clarence Clemons: 'The Big Man' Through the Years gallery (11 photos)

By young adulthood, he excelled at music and athletics and earned a football scholarship to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Injuries suffered in a car accident prevented the young lineman from trying out for the Cleveland Browns. From then on, Clemons dedicated himself to his horn.

Clemons called his instrument “a vehicle to move my spirit around.”

“I don’t think it’s only my saxophone,” Clemons told All Access Magazine in 2008, “it’s who I am. My spiritual guide … told me that my purpose in life was to bring joy into the world. He didn’t know about my music, he didn’t know who I was. He saw my heart, he saw my soul, and he saw my determination for this life.”

On the tenor saxophone, Clemons developed a style that was considerably more than the sum of his influences: party-ready King Curtis, brassy Junior Walker, skronking Earl Bostic. Clemons could be tough, raspy and percussive, but as a carrier of melody, his shoulders were broad.

After playing with a number of Asbury Park outfits in the early ’70s, Clemons joined the as-yet-unnamed E Street Band in 1972. Along with bassist Garry Tallent, Lopez, organist Danny Federici, pianist Dave Sancious and Springsteen himself, Clemons was an original member of the group.

He was also the oldest, and it’s no exaggeration to suggest he was often treated as the in-house big brother. His saxophone became a pillar of the E Street sound, and helped anchor Springsteen’s storytelling in blues, jazz and gospel traditions.

“That night we first stood together,” said Springsteen of Clemons during his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech in 1999, “I looked over at C and it looked like his head reached into the clouds. And I felt like a mere mortal scurrying upon the earth, you know. But he always lifted me up. Way, way, way up. Together we told a story of the possibilities of friendship, a story older than the ones that I was writing and a story I could never have told without him at my side.”

BEAUTY AND DRAMA

Clemons’ solos on songs like “Jungleland” and “Born to Run” were quintessential rock ’n’ roll sax rides — things of beauty and drama unmatched by efforts of thousands of imitators. But Clemons also took his support role seriously. On “Spirit in the Night,” his graceful passages were part of a thick tapestry of sound. On “Hungry Heart,” the E Street Band’s first Top 10 hit, his baritone sax tugged at the bottom of the track like taffy on the sole of a sneaker.

Bruce Springsteen performs Out in the Street Bruce Springsteen performs Out in the Street Bruce Springsteen performs Out in the Street on 7/28/08 at Giants Stadium. Watch video

That wasn’t the only time Clemons swapped his trademark tenor for a baritone. In the early ’70s, he kept another tool in his shed: a lilting soprano saxophone; on more recent tours, he covered the top end with a pennywhistle. Reeds weren’t all he did — with the E Street Band, Clemons also proved himself an able percussionist and an enthusiastic backing vocalist, too.

With his instantly identifiable tone and passion for all varieties of popular music, Clemons was often in demand as a session musician. When E Street activities slowed in the ’80s and ’90s, Clemons had no difficulty finding work. He played on scores of records, including Aretha Franklin’s “Who’s Zooming Who,” Twisted Sister’s “Come Out and Play” and Roy Orbison’s comeback “King of Hearts.” In 1989, he joined the inaugural version of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, where his charismatic stage presence and playful attitude fit in perfectly.

When Lady Gaga attempted to resurrect the glory of ’80s stadium rock on her recent album “Born This Way,” she called in Clemons.

“The universe is there to give you what you want,” Clemons told All Access about his multifaceted success. “You just need to be there to get it.”

Clemons also released five solo albums under his own name. “Hero,” a 1985 set produced by Narada Michael Walden, gave him a hit duet (with Jackson Browne): “You’re a Friend of Mine,” a song, ironically, about the relationship between Clemons and Springsteen. Even on his solo sets, the sax player could not elude the shadow of the Boss.

For two years, Clemons operated Big Man’s West, a rock venue in Red Bank that became something of a clubhouse for the E Street team and affiliated acts. Springsteen himself appeared at Big Man’s close to 20 times. Although the club closed its doors for good in 1983 for financial reasons, its existence helped revive the Shore sound. Many of the musicians who’d rock the Garden State (and beyond) during the late ’80s took the stage at Big Man’s, including Jon Bon Jovi and John Eddie.

Stone Pony founder Butch Pielka warned the saxophonist about the perils of running a rock club.

“He offered me some advice in the beginning, like, ‘Get out of the business,’ ” Clemons told The Star-Ledger this year. “My accountant agreed with him: ‘Just consider that you had a party for two and a half years, and invited all your friends, and you picked up the tab.’ That’s what it was like.”

STILL THE BIG MAN

Clemons’ celebrity never quite faded. But in recent years, a series of debilitating ailments kept him out of the limelight. The Big Man was felled by multiple spinal surgeries and knee replacements. Undeterred, he continued to blow from his wheelchair. (“He’s always on time, he’s always in pain,” wrote Don Reo in “Big Man.”)
The musician lived long enough to see “Who Do I Think I Am?,” a documentary about his life, air at the Paramount Theatre in his beloved Asbury Park this April. Hobbled by his health problems, he nevertheless took the stage at the Paramount and answered questions and signed autographs, smiling all the while.

Under the stagelights, surrounded by those who loved him, Clemons was in his element. Pushing 70, he rehabbed hard, hoping for a chance to join the E Street Band on tour in 2012.

He told Rolling Stone magazine in February that as long as he had a mouth, a brain and a pair of hands, he would keep on playing. Nobody who saw Clemons perform would ever have doubted it: his dedication was total. The saxophone was a conduit for his spirit, he assured us, and that spirit was a colossus.
Far beyond the boardwalk of Asbury Park, those big notes will keep echoing.

Staff writer Jay Lustig contributed to this report.


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kingchristie June 18, 2011 at 11:37PM

Hmm maybe its because this isn't the place for that. This is not a political story, its about a mans death.

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ajax22 June 18, 2011 at 8:02PM

Say it isn't so! RIP big man!

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JER5EY June 20, 2011 at 2:43PM

RIP Clarence - a great musician and and equally great man...

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Get Real June 18, 2011 at 8:02PM

The NJ big sound has been silenced. Sad, sad day for all those who loved and enjoyed the music.

Thanks for the great times, sympathy to his family and friends. and RIP (Rock In Peace).

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throwdabumout June 18, 2011 at 8:05PM

Omg what terrible news. RIP Clarence. I always loved watching you do your magic with the E Streeters. You will be missed terribly...
:-(

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dontgivein June 18, 2011 at 8:11PM

Rest in peace big man -- and thanks for all of the great music.

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Siul_Sooeroto_990 June 18, 2011 at 8:15PM

wasnt he on lady gagas video.

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blueman101 June 18, 2011 at 8:18PM

Man this hurts, there 's a big piece of Jersey in Heaven tonight.

Thanks Mr C for sharing the magic.

:(

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xanderzone365 June 18, 2011 at 8:20PM

RIP Clarence! You were a good musician!

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Real June 18, 2011 at 8:21PM

Last week they say he was ok and responding after the stroke.. Today he is dead! I'm so deeply sadenned over the Big mans death... My deepest condolences to his family and his closes friends who loved him deeply and his wonderful style of being one of the most greatist saxophonist of all times!

RIP Big Man!!

Thanks

Real

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putz1811 June 18, 2011 at 8:28PM

R.I.P. Big Man

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Ann_Marie Foti_124 June 18, 2011 at 8:36PM

I am so deeply saddened by this news I just saw the E street band last year have always been a fan of his this is the day the MUSIC DIED the E street band will NEVER be the same

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rumom June 18, 2011 at 8:41PM

Sending thoughts and prayers out to his family, friends, and fans. May our memories of happier times, his sweet smile, deep voice, and unforgetable sax bring us comfort, and our own sweet smile as we remember . . . RIP, Big Man. The Angels are gonna be rockin' in the Land of Hope and Dreams for sure!

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Adam June 18, 2011 at 8:43PM

RIP Big Man. Bruce will never be the same without you.

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Sandy_Kluge_837 June 18, 2011 at 8:43PM

OMG - OMG - OMG - Noooooooo!!!!!! :( :(

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