According to Clarence Clemons, it was love at first sight. He and Bruce Springsteen fell for each other at their very first meeting, which took place in 1971 in a little bar in the seaside town of Asbury Park, New Jersey. And from that night forward, Springsteen and Clemons expressed their love through a combustible musical chemistry that lasted 40 years.
It was a partnership that would eventually take the pair and their group, the E Street Band, to the top of the sales charts and into the hearts and minds of rock and roll fans around the world. As a beloved member of the E Street Band, Clemons developed the soulful tenor sax sound that was their signature. It featured prominently in many of Springsteen’s greatest recordings, such as “Spirits in the Night,” “Jungleland,” “Born to Run,” and “Hungry Heart,” and that also fueled the E Street Band’s legendary four-hour concerts.
Clemons died on Saturday, June 18, at a Palm Beach, Florida hospital. He was 69 years old and the cause of death was complications from a massive stroke he suffered one week ago, according to a spokesperson for Bruce Springsteen. In a statement released on Saturday night, Springsteen described Clarence Clemons as “my great friend, my partner.” He added, “With Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell stories far deeper than those simply contained in our music.”
Clarence Clemons was born in Virginia in 1942, and took up the saxophone as a youth, influenced by the wailing sound of R&B players like King Curtis. He was a giant of a man, measuring 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighing well over 250 pounds, and his size earned him the nickname “The Big Man” from Springsteen.
Clemons’ charismatic presence on stage with the E Street Band was also larger than life. In the early days, when Springsteen was still struggling for recognition, Clemons, an African American, stood as an all-too-rare symbol of the potential for integration in rock and roll music. Clemons was very nearly the only visible African American, and very nearly the only visible sax player, in popular rock in the 1970s. In the band’s later years, after Springsteen achieved enormous success, Clemons registered as a throwback to the barnstorming era of rock and roll. No fan of the E Street Band who ever attended a Springsteen show will forget the sight—or the sound—of Clarence Clemons pouring his body and soul into a live performance.
Outside the shadow of Springsteen and the E Street Band, Clemons was a celebrity in his own right, acting in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, playing and singing with Jackson Browne, Aretha Franklin, and Twisted Sister, and famously jamming with a newly-elected President Bill Clinton at the 1993 inaugural ball. Most recently, Clemons played on Lady Gaga’s latest album, Born This Way.
But it is for his decades-long collaboration with Springsteen and the E Street Band that music fans will always remember Clemons. In his 2009 memoir, Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales, he acknowledged his acceptance of that fact, telling the New York Daily News, “It’s where I belong.”
Clarence Clemons was married five times and divorced four. He is survived by his fifth wife, Victoria, and his four sons: Clarence Jr., Charles, Christopher, and Jarod.