Born in 1942 in Norfolk, VA; son of Clarence (a fish market owner) and Thelma Clemons; married second wife, Christina, c. 1981; children: (first marriage) Clarence III, Charles, (second marriage) Christopher. Education: Attended Maryland State College (now University of Maryland, Eastern Shore). Addresses: Record company-- Columbia Records, 1801 Century Park West, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
For almost two decades Clarence Clemons was the source of the driving tenor saxophone riffs in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. Known as the King of the World, the Master of Disaster, and especially the Big Man, Clemons provided energetic backup vocals and music on many of Springsteen's best-selling albums. Onstage, the towering Clemons proved the perfect counterpart to the wiry Springsteen throughout years of hectic touring. Down Beat contributor Don Palmer noted in 1984 that the Big Man was "the troubleshooter, the enforcer, a bloodline to the [rhythm and blues] ancestors" and offered "legitimacy and a sense of cohesion for what might otherwise be just another band trying to cover an attitude."
Clemons's long dedication to the E Street Band has not hampered his solo career, however. Since 1981 he has been cutting albums on his own, and he has worked with other rock and roll and rhythm and blues entertainers as well. Freed from his commitment to the E Street Band in 1989, Clemons was even more excited about forging his own signature style. He noted in the Phoenix Gazette at the time that working with Springsteen had a number of drawbacks. "I was constantly in a shadow," he recalled. "I wasn't playing what I wanted to hear; it was always what [Springsteen] wanted to hear.... That's not what I want to do in my life; I didn't want to be a dwindling sideman. So I'm pretty happy ... now. [Leaving the E Street Band] gives me the opportunity to go out and become Clarence Clemons."
The oldest of three children, Clemons was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1942. His parents were hardworking and deeply religious, and the youngster sang in the church choir and with a family gospel group. "I grew up fast because I had to," Clemons remarked in Down Beat. "My father owned a fish market, and I helped him in the shop. We lived 15 miles from school, so I'd get up in the morning, go to school, and work at the market or deliver fish after school. It was late, and I was tired by the time I got home at night. This went on every day. I also had a lot of responsibilities for the family because my mother was going to school. She graduated from college at the same time I finished high school. I tell you, I didn't have much time for childhood innocence."
One Christmas, Clemons asked for an electric train and got a Pan American alto saxophone instead. "I'd never even seen a saxophone before, and didn't really know why [my father] gave it to me," he told Down Beat. Clemons's father also enrolled him in private music lessons at a nearby state college. "My dad made me practice in the backroom of the store, while the other kids were out playing baseball, and I hated it," Clemons said. "He had the noisiest fish market in Norfolk."
In high school Clemons had two loves--saxophone and football. He switched to baritone sax and played in the Crestwood High School jazz band. His religious background shielded him somewhat from exposure to the early development of rock and roll, but he eventually heard the vibrant tenor saxophone work of R & B artist King Curtis. "In my senior year of high school, I heard King Curtis," Clemons remembered in Down Beat. "He turned me on, and it was then that I decided I wanted to play tenor. His sound and tone were so big on those sessions he did, and his feeling was right from the heart. Here was a guy who gave me something."
Clemons attended Maryland State College on a music and football scholarship. He majored in sociology, but his ambition was to become a professional football player. He continued playing the saxophone, and during summer breaks he often signed on to play with combos or larger ensembles, working with such outfits as the Vibratones, the Newark Bears, and the Jersey Generals. He quit college just before graduating and moved north to Newark, New Jersey, where he became a counselor for emotionally disturbed children. While holding the day job he spent many nights jamming in various bands along the Jersey Shore.
Clemons was working with a group called Joyful Noise--performing principally R & B covers--when his path crossed Bruce Springsteen's. Both artists were playing in Asbury Park, New Jersey, at bars about a city block apart. One rainy night, Clemons strolled down to take in Springsteen's show. The Big Man recounted the event in People magazine: "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! 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. 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."
Though his decision contributed to the demise of his first marriage, Clemons quit his job and joined the E Street Band. "I was making like $15 a week with Bruce then," he told People. "Had no place to stay. But I had faith. It was like following Jesus."
Clemons's faith was well-founded. After a few exploratory albums, Springsteen and the E Street Band's hit LP Born to Run went platinum and the group became--in the eyes of critics and fans alike--the premier American rock band of the 1970s. "Since 1973 the Springsteen/Clemons partnership has reaped great rewards and created insightful, high energy rock & roll," declared Don Palmer in Down Beat in 1984. "Their music, functioning like the blues from which it originated, chronicled the fears, aspirations, and limitations of suburban youth. Unlike many musicians today, Springsteen and Clemons were more interested in the heart and substance rather than the glamour of music."
From the recording booth to the stage, the Clemons-Springsteen partnership fairly seethed with vitality. Analyzing his place in the band in 1984, Clemons told Palmer: "The sax adds color to situations, and it has that urgency. Bruce allows me a certain space within which I'm free to do whatever I want, and we interact so well together that it's no problem backing him. On stage, we can dance around and play off each other, which gives the crowd a show and generates energy."
In what little free time he could find while working with Springsteen, Clemons formed his own band, the Red Bank Rockers, and signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. When his schedule allowed, he cut tracks for a debut album, Rescue, and performed at his own night club, Big Man's West, in Red Bank, New Jersey. He occasionally offered saxophone backup on the recordings of other noted artists, including Aretha Franklin's well-received Freeway of Love album. Always somewhat in the shadow of Springsteen's superstardom, the Big Man nonetheless began to assert his independence and to search for a sound that would validate his rock and roll calling.
As the 1980s wore on, Clemons made some changes in his personal lifestyle while still maintaining his professional pace. Once a perpetual party animal, he swore off alcohol and took an interest in Eastern religion and meditation. The saxophonist continued to record and tour with the E Street Band, but he also cut his own albums, took occasional television roles, and jammed with other groups. He even made it to the Top Twenty in 1988, with a Jackson Browne duet, "You're a Friend of Mine."
In 1989 Clemons joined an impromptu group led by ex-Beatle Ringo Starr. Billed as Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, the group also included Dr. John, Billy Preston, Rick Danko, Joe Walsh, Nils Lofgren, Levon Helm, and Jim Keltner. The troupe enjoyed a successful American tour in the fall of 1989; Clemons pointed out in the Phoenix Gazette that the association was "one of the most joyous times of my life." While touring in Japan with Starr, Clemons received a telephone call from Springsteen, informing him that he would no longer be needed in the E Street Band.
"[Springsteen] said he wanted to try something new, do something different," Clemons explained in the Phoenix Gazette. "It was quite a shock; you go through all the emotions of a divorce, all the emotions, instantly. I didn't say much to him. I just said, 'Good luck.' But before long I started to see the good side."
The "good side" for Clemons meant expanded opportunities to jam with other groups--including Starr's ensemble and the Grateful Dead--and the freedom to pursue his solo career without interruption. His albums have drawn reviewers' praise and have explored rock, old rhythm and blues standards, and high-tech dance music. Although he has become more comfortable as a singer, Clemons is still most at home with his saxophone. "I know that the tenor can affect people because it is an emotive instrument," he told Down Beat. "It's so strong the way you can come in on tenor. Because of my size, the tenor is a lot easier for me to play. It's just a natural extension of me, of my personality, and I'm a positive person." He concluded: "The thing about it is that the tenor can be played in two totally different ways. I play it with a positive energy because I want to give something to the audience, and it should be something good."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Clarence Clemons's Career
Saxophone player, singer, and songwriter, 1962--. Janesburg Training School for Boys, Newark, NJ, counselor, c. 1962-70. Saxophone player with band Joyful Noise, Asbury Park, NJ, c. 1968-70; joined E Street Band, led by Bruce Springsteen, 1971-89. Formed the Red Bank Rockers, 1981; signed with Columbia Records; released first album, Rescue, c. 1982. Sax player and vocalist in numerous bands, including the Grateful Dead and Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band.
- Selective Works
- With Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band; on Columbia Records Greetings From Asbury Park 1973.
- The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle 1973.
- Born to Run 1975.
- Darkness on the Edge of Town 1978.
- The River 1980.
- Born in the U.S.A. 1984.
- Tunnel of Love 1987.
- Other; on Columbia Records (With the Red Bank Rockers) Rescue.
- (With Ian Hunter) All of the Good Ones Are Taken.
- Hero 1985.
- A Night With Mr. C 1989.
- Marsh, Dave, Born To Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, Doubleday, 1979.
- Akron Beacon Journal, December 18, 1989.
- Daily News (Los Angeles), September 1, 1989.
- Down Beat, April 1984.
- People, November 4, 1985; October 16, 1989.
- Phoenix Gazette, February 6, 1990.