Clarence Clemons, Springsteen’s E Street Band sax player, dies at 69

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011
Image: Flominator.

Clarence Clemons, soulful saxophonist most famed for his forty years as a sideman in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, died Saturday at a Palm Beach, Florida hospital. The cause of death was complications from a stroke he had suffered a week ago at his Singer Island home. He was 69.

Called the "Big Man" because of his 6-foot 5-inch frame, Clemons joined Springteen's New Jersey band in 1972. For all but two years, he was the only black in the largely white, working class group, and became a key influence in Springsteen's music as well as a trusted companion. He was a jovial on-stage presence and musically added to the band's electric guitar sound and strong rhythms. According to the New York Times, he added "muscular, melodic saxophone hooks that echoed doo-wop, soul and early rock ’n’ roll". His rollicking saxophone solos were a signature sound for the E Street Band on songs such as Jungleland, and Born To Run.

He also released several solo albums and played with other bands and artists. He was featured on Aretha Franklin's Freeway of Love and duetted with Jackson Browne on You're a Friend of Mine. Most recently, he played on Lady Gaga's latest album, Born This Way. Additionally, he occasionally acted, appearing in such movies as Martin Scorsese's New York, New York and various TV shows including Diff’rent Strokes. He famously jammed with President Bill Clinton at his first inaugural ball in 1993.

Cquote1.svg [Clarence] 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. Cquote2.svg

—Bruce Springsteen

Clemons was born in Norfolk, Virginia on Jan. 11, 1942 and grew up in a religious environment, immersed in gospel music. He was drawn to rock ’n’ roll and received an alto sax as a Christmas gift when he was nine, but soon fell under the influence of King Curtis (who played on the 1958 hit Yakety Yak with the Coasters) and moved to the tenor sax. He said in an interview: "I got into the soul music, but I wanted to rock. I was a rocker. I was a born rock 'n' roll sax player."

Clemons playing in the E Street Band
Image: Manuel Martinez Perez.

Clemons was also a talented athlete and received a college scholarship for football and music, but he injured his knee in a car accident, ending any chances for a professional football career.

Springsteen said in a statement: "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 opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty 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."


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