Clarence Clemons became the undisputed voice of the saxophone in rock and roll music through his work with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Yet Clemons initially had aspirations to be a pro football player. However, on the evening before his official tryout with the Cleveland Browns, he sustained serious injuries in an auto accident which suddenly ended his sports aspirations.
But what the Browns lost in a lineman, music gained in a unique voice which embraced blues, R&B and rock’n’roll.
The legend goes that when Clarence Clemons met Bruce Springsteen for the first time, Clarence was in Asbury Park, New Jersey on a gig with a group called Normal Seldin & the Joyful Noyze. The Springsteen Band was also in town and Clarence skipped out between sets to go check out Bruce. Clemons walked on stage and simply said “I want to play with your band”, and Bruce told him to play anything he wanted. Clemons would say that their intuition and mutual inspiration was telepathic from the start, and they were almost inseparable ever since.
Clemons appears on every major Springsteen album and has performed on numerous American chart-topping and internationally known hits. His memorable solos in songs like “Thunder Road”, “Born to Run” and “Jungleland” would become icons of cathartic blues saxophone counterpoint in rock music and help solidify his legendary status in music history.
Clarence Clemons also recorded several solo albums and many memorable guest spots for a wide array of artists, including Jackson Browne, Aretha Franklin, and Lady Gaga.
Apart from music, Clemons has made several big and small screen appearances. His film debut came in Martin Scorcese’s “New York New York” musical in 1977. He also appeared as one of “The Three Most Important People in the World” in the seminal slacker comedy “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”. He was also involved in HBO’s acclaimed series “The Wire” where he twice played the role of a Baltimore youth program organizer.
His part on “The Wire” is similar to his later-life work with the non-profit group Home Safe, a south Florida organization to help victims of domestic violence and child abuse. His fundraising efforts and personal visits benefitted the organization with millions of dollars and inspiration for everyone in the community.
On June 18, 2011, Clemons died from complications of a stroke he’d suffered six days earlier. He left behind a rich musical legacy that continues to inspire saxophonists, musicians, and social activists all over the world. Read more about him in this great book, which tells in Clarence’s words, how the E-Street Band got its name, and plenty of great stories of the Big Man’s life.