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“With Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music.”
——Bruce Springsteen

THE BIG MAN IS GONE

The Boss’ Right-Hand Man, Clarence Clemons Was One of a Kind
Rock & roll lost a giant figure—literally—when Clarence Clemons died Saturday of complications from a stroke he suffered last weekend. He was 69.

News of Clemons’ death was first reported Saturday night on nj.com, the Newark Star-Ledger’s website.

Said Bruce Springsteen about his longtime bandmate: “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 oppurtunity to stand beside him for nearly 40 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.”

“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,” original E Street Band drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez told the Star-Ledger’s Triss McCall. 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,” he said.

It’s Clemons’ shoulder that Springsteen was looking over on the iconic cover of Born to Run.

Clemons seemed to be a character out of a storybook — or better yet, a movie about the triumph of a romantic gang of rock & 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.

In his touching tribute, the N.Y. TimesJon Pareles wrote: “His meaty tone was the legacy of his main model, King Curtis, and of the countless lesser-known honkers, shouters and squealers who pumped out riffs and took eight-bar solos in 1940s and ’50s jump blues, R&B and doo-wop. His lung power forged the E Street Band’s most visceral connection with those African-American rock ’n’ roll roots, one that was already nostalgic even in the ’70s… Clemons’ imposing figure declared that the E Street Band was sharing rock & roll’s black heritage, not plundering it. In America’s long, vexed cultural history of race, his bond with Springsteen made Clemons a symbol of unity and reconciliation.”

Born Jan. 11, 1942, in Norfolk, VA, Clemons was given an alto saxophone at the age of nine, and he immediately showed a flair for the instrument. He excelled at music and athletics and earned a football scholarship to Maryland State (now U. of Maryland Eastern Shore. Injuries suffered in a car accident prevented lineman from trying out for the Cleveland Browns.

In Asbury Park one night, he went to a bar a block from the one where he'd been booked to check out a local band he'd been hearing about.

"I had my saxophone with me, and when I walked in this club—no lie—a gust of wind just blew the door down the street. Boof!," Clemons told People. "I say, 'I want to play. Can I sit in?' Bruce says, 'Hey, you can do anything you want. Take a couple of background singers, anything.'

"I sat in with him that night," Clemons said. "It was phenomenal. We'd never even laid eyes on each other, but after that first song, he looked at me, I looked at him, and we said, 'This is it.' After that I was stoked."

Springsteen would later immortalize this meeting in the rousing Born to Run song “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” “Mere facts,” wrote Springsteen in the preface to Clemons’ book, “will never plumb the mysteries of the Big Man.”

Soon thereafter, Clemons became a founding member of the as-yet-unnamed E Street Band, along with bassist Garry Tallent, Lopez, organist Danny Federici, pianist Dave Sancious and The Boss.

“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.”

Clemons, who released five solo LPs, was also an in-demand as a session musician, playing on tons of records, including Aretha Franklin’s “Who’s Zooming Who,” Twisted Sister’s “Come Out and Play,” Roy Orbison’s “King of Hearts” and “You’re a Friend of Mine,” a duet with Jackson Browne. In 1989, he joined the inaugural version of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. And self-described Bruce fan Lady Gaga tapped him to play on Born This Way, including current single “The Edge of Glory.”

In recent years, Clemons had been struggling through a series of debilitating ailments leading to a series of spinal surgeries and knee replacements, forcing him to perform in a wheelchair—but perform he did. Though hobbled by his health problems, he’d been rehabbing in hopes of joining the E Street Band on tour next year. He told Rolling Stone in February that as long as he had a mouth, a brain and a pair of hands, he would keep on playing. As Don Reo put it in Big Man, “He’s always on time, he’s always in pain.”

Clemons described his tenor sax as “a vehicle to move my spirit around.” As he told All Access magazine in 2008, “I don’t think it’s only my saxophone, 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.”

"Every time we get together, it's all brand-new," Clemons told the AP last year about his partnership with Springsteen. "Every time, Bruce comes back with something new and something different. I keep wondering: How high can he take it?... How many times can he be reborn? I just want to keep on living so I can keep seeing the change."

He 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.

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