Clarence Clemons

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Clarence Clemons
Clarence Clemons Nov 20, 2009.jpg
Clemons performing in November 2009
Born(1942-01-11)January 11, 1942
DiedJune 18, 2011(2011-06-18) (aged 69)
Other namesThe Big Man
  • Musician
  • actor
Years active1961–2011
Victoria Clemons
(m. 2008)
Children4, including Nick
Musical career
  • Saxophone
  • percussion
  • vocals
  • tambourine
  • maracas
Formerly ofE Street Band

Clarence Anicholas Clemons Jr. (January 11, 1942 – June 18, 2011), also known as The Big Man, was an American musician and actor. From 1972 until his death in 2011, he was the saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.

Clemons released several solo albums. In 1985, he had a hit single with "You're a Friend of Mine", a duet with Jackson Browne. As a guest musician, he featured on Aretha Franklin's song "Freeway of Love". As an actor, Clemons appeared in several films, including New York, New York and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. He also made cameo appearances in several TV series, including Diff'rent Strokes, Nash Bridges, The Simpsons, My Wife and Kids and The Wire. Clemons published Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales (2009) with his friend Don Reo. The book is a semi-fictional autobiography told in the third person. A documentary about his life directed by Nick Mead, titled Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am? was released in August 2019.[1]

Clemons died in 2011 at the age of 69. In 2014, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the E Street Band.

Early life[edit]

Clarence Anicholas Clemons Jr. was born on January 11, 1942, in Norfolk County, Virginia (later the city of Chesapeake),[2] the son of fish market owner Clarence Clemons, Sr. and his wife Thelma.[3][4][5] He was the oldest of their three children. His grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher and, as a result, the young Clemons grew up in a very religious environment listening to gospel music.[citation needed] When he was nine, his father gave him an alto saxophone as a Christmas present and paid for music lessons. He later switched to baritone saxophone and played in a high school jazz band. His uncle also influenced his early musical development when he bought him his first King Curtis album. Curtis, and his work with the Coasters in particular, would become a major influence on Clemons and led to him switching to tenor saxophone.[6]

As a youth, Clemons also showed potential as a football player, and graduated from Crestwood High School (now Crestwood Middle) before attending Maryland State College[3] on both music and football scholarships. At 6' 4" and 240 pounds,[6] he played as a lineman on the same team as Art Shell and Emerson Boozer and attracted the attention of the Cleveland Browns, who offered him a trial. Clemons also tried out for the Dallas Cowboys.[7] However, the day before, he was involved in a serious car accident which effectively ended any plans of a career in the National Football League.[8][9][10][11] He would eventually be posthumously inducted into the university's Athletics Hall of Fame on February 24, 2012.[12]

At age 18, Clemons had one of his earliest studio experiences, recording sessions with Tyrone Ashley's Funky Music Machine, a band from Plainfield, New Jersey, that included Ray Davis, Eddie Hazel and Billy Bass Nelson, all of whom later played with Parliament-Funkadelic. He also performed with Daniel Petraitis, a New Jersey and Nashville legend. These sessions were eventually released in 2007 by Truth and Soul Records as Let Me Be Your Man.[13][14] While at Maryland State College, Clemons also joined his first band, the Vibratones, which played James Brown covers and stayed together for about four years between 1961 and 1965. While still playing with this band, he moved to Somerset, New Jersey, where he worked as a counselor for emotionally disturbed children at the Jamesburg Training School for Boys between 1962 and 1970.[citation needed]

Music career[edit]

E Street Band[edit]

Clemons stage front with the E Street Band, playing his famous "Jungleland" saxophone solo. Nassau Coliseum, March 10, 2008.
Clemons playing his "Born to Run" saxophone solo with house lights up. Hartford Civic Center, April 24, 2009.

The story of how Clemons first met Bruce Springsteen has entered into E Street Band mythology. "The E Street Shuffle" contains a monologue about how they met, and the event was also immortalized in "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out". They allegedly met for the first time in September 1971. At the time, Clemons was playing with Norman Seldin & the Joyful Noyze at The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Seldin was a Jersey Shore musician/entrepreneur who, as well as playing piano and leading various bands, had his own record label, Selsom Records. In 1969, Clemons had recorded an eponymous album with this band. In 2008, tracks from this album were reissued on an anthology, Asbury Park — Then and Now, put together by Seldin. It was Karen Cassidy, lead vocalist with the Joyful Noyze, who encouraged Clemons to check out Springsteen, who was playing with the Bruce Springsteen Band at the nearby Student Prince.[15][16][17] Clemons recalled their meeting in various interviews:[18]

One night we were playing in Asbury Park. I'd heard The Bruce Springsteen Band was nearby at a club called The Student Prince and on a break between sets I walked over there. On-stage, Bruce used to tell different versions of this story but I'm a Baptist, remember, so this is the truth. A rainy, windy night it was, and when I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band were on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway. And maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, "I want to play with your band," and he said, "Sure, you do anything you want." The first song we did was an early version of "Spirit in the Night". Bruce and I looked at each other and didn't say anything, we just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other's lives. He was what I'd been searching for. In one way he was just a scrawny little kid. But he was a visionary. He wanted to follow his dream. So from then on I was part of history.

However, well before this meeting, Clemons and Springsteen had moved within the same circle of musical acquaintances. Norman Seldin had managed and promoted several local bands, including The Motifs[19] who featured Vinnie Roslin, later to play with Springsteen in Steel Mill. On April 22, 1966, Seldin had also organized a Battle of the Bands competition at the Matawan-Keyport Roller Drome in Matawan, New Jersey. Springsteen was among the entrants playing with his then band, The Castiles.[20] Billy Ryan, who played lead guitar with The Joyful Noyze,[21] also played in The Jaywalkers with Garry Tallent and Steve Van Zandt. Clemons himself had also played with Tallent in Little Melvin & The Invaders.[22]

In July 1972, Springsteen began recording his debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and during breaks from recording, he jammed with Clemons and The Joyful Noyze on at least two occasions at The Shipbottom Lounge in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. When Springsteen then decided to use a tenor saxophone on the songs "Blinded by the Light" and "Spirit in the Night", he called Clemons. By October Springsteen was ready to tour and promote Greetings… and he put together a band featuring Clemons, Tallent, Danny Federici and Vini Lopez. Clemons played his last gig with Norman Seldin & The Joyful Noyze at the Club Plaza in Bayville, New Jersey, on October 21, 1972. Four days later Clemons made his debut with the formative E Street Band at an unadvertised, impromptu performance at The Shipbottom Lounge.[23][24]

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Clemons featured prominently on Springsteen's albums.[25] On Born to Run he provided memorable saxophone solos on the title track, "Thunder Road", "She's the One", "Night" and "Jungleland". Darkness on the Edge of Town featured notable solos by Clemons on "Badlands" and "The Promised Land". The River saw Clemons featured on songs such as "The Ties That Bind", "Sherry Darling", "I Wanna Marry You", "Drive All Night" and "Independence Day" while Born in the U.S.A. saw solos on "Bobby Jean" and "I'm Goin' Down".[26][27]

Springsteen and other members of the band referred to Clemons as "The Big Man".[28] At the end of shows, while recognizing members of the E Street Band, Springsteen referred to Clemons as "The Biggest Man You Ever Seen".[29] He sometimes changed this depending on where the E Street Band performs — at their 2009 concert in Glasgow he introduced Clemons as "the biggest Scotsman you've ever seen".[30]

In April 2014, the E Street Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Clemons' widow accepted on his behalf.[31]

Solo career[edit]

Outside of his work with the E Street Band, Clemons recorded with many other artists and had a number of musical projects on his own. The best known of these are his 1985 vocal duet with Jackson Browne on the Top-20 hit single "You're a Friend of Mine", and his saxophone work on Aretha Franklin's 1985 Top-10 hit single "Freeway of Love". He was managed briefly in the 1980s by former Crawdaddy editor Peter Knobler, at whose wedding Clemons played with his band, Clarence Clemons & the Red Bank Rockers. During the 1980s, Clemons also owned a Red Bank, New Jersey, nightclub called Big Man's West. He toured in the first incarnation of Ringo Starr & The All-Starr Band in 1989, singing "You're a Friend of Mine" (dueting with Billy Preston) and an updated rap arrangement of "Quarter to Three."

In the late 1980s, he developed a friendship with Jerry Garcia and played a number of concerts with the Grateful Dead, including notable appearances during their New Year's Eve concert in 1988, an AIDS benefit concert in May 1989, and a live pay-per-view broadcast of their summer solstice concert on June 21, 1989. Clemons also did a tour with the Jerry Garcia Band. One of these performances, from September 16, 1989 was officially released in 2020 as 'GarciaLive 13'

In the mid-1990s, he recorded a Japan-only CD release called Aja and the Big Man "Get It On" with Los Angeles singer/songwriter Aja Kim. In 1992 he was involved in the sessions for the album Zoom by Alvin Lee. At this time he also recorded an instrumental record with Alan Niven producing, Peacemaker.

In the 2000s, Clemons along with producer Narada Michael Walden, put together a group called The Temple of Soul, releasing a single called "Anna". He also recorded with philanthropic teen band Creation. Clemons collaborated with Lady Gaga on the songs "Hair" and "The Edge of Glory" from her album Born This Way, providing a saxophone track and solo.[32] In April 2011, Clemons sat in on several tunes with the Grateful Dead "spinoff" band Furthur during a concert in Boca Raton, Florida. Just days before he suffered a major stroke, he shot a music video with Lady Gaga for "The Edge of Glory".

Acting career[edit]

Clarence Clemons

Clemons appeared in several movies and on television, making his screen debut in Martin Scorsese's musical 1977 musical film New York, New York, in which he played a trumpet player.[33] He played one of the 'Three Most Important People In The World' in the 1989 comedy film Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.[33] In 1985, Clemons was a special guest star in Diff'rent Strokes episode "So You Want to Be a Rock Star", in which he played the role of Mr. Kingsley, a young saxophonist helping Arnold Jackson to learn to play his sax.[33] He was also a guest voice in a 1999 episode of The Simpsons.

In 1990, he co-starred in the pilot episode of Human Target, a Rick Springfield action series intended for ABC.[34] He also played the role of Jack in Swing starring opposite Lisa Stansfield and Hugo Speer, directed by Nick Mead. He appeared alongside Michael McKean and David Bowe as a miner in one episode of musician "Weird Al" Yankovic's children's television show The Weird Al Show.[33] He made a cameo appearance in the sequel to The Blues Brothers, Blues Brothers 2000 (1999), as part of the metal section of super blues band The Louisiana Gator Boys. He appeared in the episode "Michael's Band" of Damon Wayans' television show My Wife and Kids as a musician, and performed an original composition, co written with bassist Lynn Woolever, called "One Shadow In The Sun".[33]

Clemons twice appeared as a Baltimore youth-program organizer in the HBO crime drama The Wire.[35][36] He appeared in an episode of Brothers and in the "Eddie's Book" episode of 'Til Death as himself.[33]

Other work[edit]

Clemons published Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales (2009) with his friend Don Reo. It is a semi-fictional autobiography told in the third person.[37]

Personal life[edit]

Married five times, Clemons fathered four sons: Charles, Christopher, Jarod, and Clarence III (known as Nick).[38] His nephew, Jake Clemons, was introduced as the new saxophone player of the E Street Band in 2012 after Clemons' death.[39] He lived in Florida where he became involved with charitable organizations.[40] Clemons was associated with spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy.[41]


Memorial display for Clemons at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, June 2011

Clemons suffered a massive stroke at his home in Florida, on June 12.[42] While initial signs had been hopeful after his hospitalization and two subsequent brain surgeries, he took a turn for the worse later in the week and died on June 18,[43][44] aged 69.[45] Upon announcement of his death, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered state flags to be lowered to half staff in his honor.[46] He was survived by his four sons, Nick, Charles, Christopher, Jarod; his younger brother William Melvon Clemons, Sr. (1946–2014); and his fifth wife, Victoria, whom he had married in 2008.[47]

Tributes and legacy[edit]

Springsteen said of Clemons:

Clarence lived a wonderful life. 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. His loss is immeasurable, and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner, and with Clarence at my side my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.[48]

At their concert in Portsmouth, Virginia, on June 19, 2011, Phish covered "Thunder Road" as a tribute to Clemons.[49]

At an Eddie Vedder concert in Hartford, Connecticut, on June 18, 2011, upon hearing of Clemons' health struggles, Vedder wished Clemons well, and Vedder was soon notified by a sound tech that Clemons had died. Vedder later played a tribute to Clemons during the Pearl Jam song "Better Man", changing the lyrics to include, "Can't find a Bigger Man" (paying homage to Clemons' nickname "The Big Man"). During a subsequent performance on the Late Show with David Letterman, Vedder played a ukulele with "Clarence" written across the front of it.[50]

Before singing "Moment of Surrender" at the U2 concert in Anaheim on June 18, 2011, Bono paid tribute to Clemons. He read lyrics from Springsteen's "Jungleland" near the end of the song, and repeated them at the song's conclusion.[51] Bono repeated this dedication and tribute during "Moment of Surrender" at the U2 concert in New Jersey on June 21[52] and again in Baltimore on June 22.[53]

Bon Jovi performed "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" as the first encore during their concert in Horsens on June 19, 2011. While playing that song, photos of Clemons were shown on the giant video screen behind the band.[54][55]

Jimmy Buffett added verses that included Clemons in "The Stories We Could Tell" during his final encore during his concert on June 21, 2011. The rest of the band left the stage and it was Buffett playing and singing alone.[56]

During The Gaslight Anthem's set at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival, frontman Brian Fallon dedicated their song "The '59 Sound" to Clemons.[57]

On July 17, 2011, a tribute concert was held at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Springsteen performed a 45-minute set playing some of Clemons' songs. Clemons' son, Clarence III, (known as Nick), opened the show with his band, The Nick Clemons Band.[58]

On October 1, 2011, a tribute to Clemons took place at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida. Traditionally an annual charity event hosted by Clemons called The Classic Rock & Roll Party, the event paid tribute to Clemons' life and all he did for Home Safe, a non-profit organization helping victims of child abuse and domestic violence.[59][60]

In January 2012, Clemons' hometown paid tribute with memorial concerts featuring members of the E Street Band. The concert took place at The NorVa concert hall.[61]

In October 2011, Lady Gaga paid tribute to him when she accepted the "Big Man of the Year" from Little Kids Rock.[62] In a June 21, 2012, concert in Sydney, Australia, Gaga dedicated her song "The Edge of Glory" in which Clemons had contributed.[63]

On July 28, 2012, in Gothenburg, Springsteen and the E Street Band performed "Jungleland" for the first time on the Wrecking Ball World Tour, with Clemons' nephew Jake Clemons playing the saxophone solo and the song being dedicated to Clemons.[64]






Music videos[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kaplan, Ilana (June 9, 2019). "Springsteen Saxophonist Clarence Clemons Documentary Out This Summer". Rolling Stone. Retrieved January 10, 2020.
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  5. ^ Carpenter, Brown (February 24, 2006). Local teacher was an active participant in desegregation. The Virginian-Pilot
  6. ^ a b Before Bruce, Clemons Was a Big Man on Campus, The New York Times, William C. Rhoden, July 9, 2011. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  7. ^ Sisario, Ben (June 18, 2011). "Clarence Clemons, E Street Band Saxophonist, Dies at 69". The New York Times.
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  20. ^ "502 Bad Gateway nginx openresty". Archived from the original on August 24, 2014.
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  35. ^ ""The Wire" Moral Midgetry (2004) : Full cast and crew". IMDb. Retrieved December 19, 2015.
  36. ^ ""The Wire" Hamsterdam (2004) : Full cast and crew". IMDb. Retrieved December 19, 2015.
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  39. ^ Holtzclaw, Mike. "On break from E Street, Jake Clemons ready for a hometown show".
  40. ^ "An angel named Clarence". Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved November 28, 2020.
  41. ^ "Sri Chinmoy, 76; quirky peace advocate blended spiritual and physical". Los Angeles Times. October 14, 2007.
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  49. ^ "June 19, 2011 Setlist". Retrieved December 19, 2015.
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  55. ^ "Stars pay tribute to Clarence Clemons – The Marquee Blog". CNN. June 20, 2011.
  56. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: Shawn Salim (July 3, 2011), Jimmy Buffett tribute to Clarence Clemons, retrieved December 16, 2016
  57. ^ "BBC Glastonbury Festival - 2011 - The Gaslight Anthem". BBC. June 26, 2011. Retrieved December 19, 2015.
  58. ^ "Bruce Springsteen Gives Surprise Clarence Clemons Tribute: Watch". Billboard. Retrieved October 2, 2021.
  59. ^ "Clarence Clemons Concert Setlists". Retrieved October 2, 2021.
  60. ^ Tully, Jonathan (September 14, 2011). "In Concert: An all-star cast of musicians will honor Clarence Clemons on Oct. 1". The Palm Beach Post. New Media Investment Group. Retrieved October 2, 2021.
  61. ^ "Entertainment and Guides for Hampton Roads, Va". Archived from the original on November 29, 2012. Retrieved December 19, 2015.
  62. ^ "Lady Gaga in Moving Tribute to 'Big Man' at Little Kids Rock" (PDF). Billboard. Retrieved February 4, 2020.
  63. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Lady Gaga, Edge of Glory, Dedicated to Clarence, BTWB Sydney, 21st June, 2012". Retrieved February 4, 2020 – via YouTube.
  64. ^ "Bruce Springsteen Performs 'Jungleland' for the First Time Since Clarence Clemons' Death". Ultimate Classic Rock. Retrieved December 16, 2016.
  65. ^ Clarence Clemons at IMDb
  66. ^ "Clarence Clemons : Unofficial website: TV/Filmography". Archived from the original on January 23, 2016. Retrieved December 19, 2015.

External links[edit]