By Terence McArdle
Clarence Clemons, 69, the tenor saxophonist who worked with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, died Saturday after suffering a stroke June 12 at his Florida home.
A spokeswoman for Springsteen confirmed Mr. Clemons’s death to the Associated Press.
In a career spanning five decades, Mr. Clemons worked with performers ranging from Aretha Franklin to Lady Gaga and also led his own bands, the Red Bank Rockers and the Temple of Soul.
But he was best known for his big-toned sax work with Springsteen.
Mr. Clemons, whom Springsteen called “the Big Man” for his formidable presence, was a focal point of the E Street Band’s performances. His calm, almost stoical demeanor contrasted with Springsteen’s kinetic antics. His solos dominated such Springsteen songs as “Jungleland,” “Spirit in the Night” and “Born to Run.” In concert, Springsteen would tell “Big Man” stories and rest his ear against Mr. Clemons’s saxophone during his solos. He would also land at Mr. Clemons’s feet as he darted across the stage.
In a statement late Saturday, Springsteen said, “His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly 40 years.”
The saxophonist joined Springsteen in 1971, a year before the singer-songwriter’s first recordings, when both musicians were still hustling gigs in New Jersey bars — and remained with him until 1989, later rejoining the band for reunion tours.
“Nobody would argue that he was a ground-breaking musician,” said rock critic Anthony DeCurtis. “ButBruce didn’t need a virtuoso. It was about a band and, as a sax player in that band, Clarence was fantastic.”
“He had a symbolic importance in the band and in the larger E Street Band mythology; a sense of bridging a racial gap in a creative partnership. And all of the lore surrounding him was as important to Bruce as his playing.”
Part of the lore was a fictionalized account of their first meeting. Onstage, Springsteen would tell of fearfully encountering Mr. Clemons at night. Mr. Clemons extended his hand, they shook and “sparks flew on E Street.”
Springsteen immortalized their partnership in his song “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”:
When the change was made uptown
And the Big Man joined the band
From the coastline to the city
All the little pretties raise their hands
I’m gonna sit back right easy and laugh
When Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half
“Bruce created a whole mythology for the Jersey shore on his early records — a created landscape like in literature,” DeCurtis said. “All the guys in the band had nicknames, they all had a role and the one who had the biggest role was Clarence — the Big Man.”
Mr. Clemons was Springsteen’s link to the early era of rock-and-roll when the sax, not the guitar, was the genre’s dominant instrument. As the saxophone became less prominent in Springsteen’s music in later years, Mr. Clemons’s work with the E Street Band brought him other opportunities.
He had small acting roles in Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film “New York, New York” and on the HBO series “The Wire.” He also toured with his band, Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers, which a Washington Post reviewer described as “solid as it dug into well-worn soul grooves” but “less effective when trying to stretch into contemporary rock.”
Mr. Clemons’s sax solo graced Aretha Franklin’s 1985 hit “Freeway of Love,” and that same year, he duetted with singer-songwriter Jackson Browne on the pop hit “You’re a Friend of Mine.” More recently, he appeared on Lady Gaga’s album “Born This Way.”
Clarence Clemons was born Jan. 11, 1942, in the Tidewater region of Virginia. His father owned a fish market. Mr. Clemons sang in church groups, but it was the unanticipated Christmas gift of an alto saxophone — he’d asked for an electric train — that whetted his interest in music.
In high school, he switched to tenor sax after hearing recordings by rhythm and blues great King Curtis.
Mr. Clemons attended the former Maryland State College, now known as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, on a football and music scholarship and played in bar bands on summer break. He moved to Newark and continued to work at music while counseling emotionally disturbed children at the New Jersey Training School for Boys in nearby Jamesburg.
While performing with a cover band in Asbury Park, Mr. Clemons went down the street to take in Springsteen’s show.
“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!” he recalled to People magazine. “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.’ ”
Mr. Clemons quit his job and joined Springsteen’s band. He later recalled that he initially made only $15 a week.
His first marriage ended in divorce. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Clemons was once asked why he received almost as much applause as Springsteen on their shows together.
“It’s because of my innocence,” he said. “I have no agenda — just to be loved. Somebody said to me, ‘Whenever somebody says your name, a smile comes to their face.’ That’s a great accolade. I strive to keep it that way.”