Clarence Clemons obituary

Saxophonist with the E Street Band and vital foil to Springsteen

Almost as much as the music, it was the sleeve image of Bruce Springsteen leaning nonchalantly on the back of the saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who has died aged 69 after a stroke, that defined Springsteen's 1975 album Born to Run. The photograph symbolised the intense fraternal bonding that helped fuel the rise of Springsteen and his E Street Band. Throughout the years of their greatest success, Clemons was a vital ingredient of Springsteen's sound and an invaluable onstage foil to "the Boss".

Clemons was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the oldest of the three children of Thelma Clemons and her husband Clarence, who owned a fish market. His parents worked long hours and were devoutly religious, and the young Clarence cut his musical teeth with the local church choir and in a gospel group. He used to help out with the family fish business after school, and shouldered some domestic responsibilities while his mother took a college course. "I didn't have much time for childhood innocence," he remarked later.

He began playing the saxophone after his father bought him an alto instrument one Christmas, and enrolled him in music lessons at a local college. He switched to the beefier-toned baritone sax, but then decided the tenor sax was the way to go after feeling inspired to imitate the scorching R&B playing of King Curtis. Meanwhile, Clemons was also a keen football player, and he won a football and music scholarship to Maryland State College. It looked as if he might be destined for a sporting career when he went for a try-out with the Cleveland Browns, but his footballing hopes were crushed when he was involved in a serious car accident.

Meanwhile he had been gaining musical experience by playing with an R&B covers band, the Vibratones, and also played on recording sessions with Tyrone Ashley's Funky Music Machine, a New Jersey outfit featuring future members of Parliament-Funkadelic. Clemons moved to Newark, where he took a job as a counsellor to emotionally disturbed children at the Jamesburg Training School for Boys, while playing music in the clubs along the Jersey shore by night.

He was moving among the same circle of local musicians as Springsteen, and first ran into him when they were both playing gigs in separate bars in the seaside resort of Asbury Park. Clemons went to check out Springsteen and asked if he could play sax with him. Springsteen invited him to join in on a version of Spirit in the Night. "I sat in with him that night," Clemons told People magazine. "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.'"

By now Clemons had married, and fathered two sons, Clarence III and Charles, by his first wife, but the union quickly became a casualty of his decision to quit his job and join the E Street Band. "I was making $15 a week with Bruce then," he recalled. "But I had faith. It was like following Jesus."

Clemons stayed the course for Springsteen's first couple of commercially unsuccessful albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, and The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (both released in 1973), before the band- leader exploded into stardom with Born to Run (the story of how Clemons joined the E Streeters was alluded to in the song Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out). Clemons's braying saxophone featured prominently on Thunder Road, Jungle-land and Born to Run itself, and his background in R&B and soul music lent an authentic earthiness to the soul-band feel of the E Street crew in their early days.

Clemons became a kind of E Street mascot during the ensuing years, his looming 6ft 4in bulk making an effective contrast with the small, hyperactive Boss onstage. His powerful sax playing lit up some of Springsteen's best-known pieces, including Badlands, The Ties That Bind, Independence Day and Bobby Jean. Springsteen liked to embellish the carnival-like E Street mythology in his onstage chats to the audience, characterising Clemons as the "Big Man", capable of exaggerated and heroic feats.

After the colossal success of the 1984 album Born in the USA and then touring with the follow-up, Tunnel of Love (1987), Springsteen decided he wanted a change of musical partners, and in 1989 informed the band members that they were no longer required. Clemons was shocked, though for some years he had been pursuing musical directions of his own. Indeed, when he received Springsteen's call, he was touring in Japan with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, which included Joe Walsh, Billy Preston, Dr John and other luminaries, and he would also tour with the Grateful Dead.

Clemons had formed his own band, the Red Bank Rockers, in 1981, and released the album Rescue with them in 1983. His next album, Hero, included a duet with Jackson Browne, You're a Friend of Mine, which became a Top 20 hit. He also played the sax on Aretha Franklin's 1985 hit Freeway of Love. Clemons made three further solo albums during the 80s, and ran a New Jersey nightclub called Big Man's West.

In 1999, Springsteen saw the error of his ways and recalled the E Street Band to his side for a reunion tour. The Rising (2002) was the first album he had made with the full E Street squad since Born in the USA, and its release was followed by protracted and successful touring.

Springsteen and the band were prominent on the Vote for Change tour in 2004, which aimed (unsuccessfully) to put a Democrat in the White House, and the E Streeters were also united behind Springsteen for the albums Magic (2007) and Working On a Dream (2009). In between, Clemons found time to perform with the band Temple of Soul. "We have one life and that life is on that stage," he said. "Everything else doesn't matter because we don't know what's going to happen."

In 2009 Clemons published his anecdote-packed autobiography, Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales, which was hailed by the former US president and part-time saxophonist Bill Clinton as "an essential read for any music lover". Clemons played on several tracks from Lady Gaga's 2011 album Born This Way, and performed with her on the television show American Idol.

However, he had been experiencing health problems. He had two knee replacements in 2008, and also needed spinal surgery. He suffered a serious stroke earlier this month.

In a statement on his website, Springsteen wrote: "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."

Clemons is survived by his sons, Clarence, Charles, Christopher and Jarod, and his fifth wife, Victoria.

• Clarence Anicholas Clemons, saxophonist, born 11 January 1942; died 18 June 2011


Adam Sweeting

The GuardianTramp

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