Sunday, June 19, 2011

Big Man Down: Clarence Clemons RIP

A sad day on the Backstreets, as Clarence Clemons has died:
Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, whose jovial onstage manner, soul-rooted style and brotherly relationship with Mr. Springsteen made him one of rock’s most beloved sidemen, died on Saturday at a hospital in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 69.

The cause was complications of a stroke he suffered last Sunday at his home in Singer Island, Fla., a spokeswoman for Mr. Springsteen said.

In a statement released Saturday night, Mr. Springsteen called Mr. Clemons “my great friend, my partner.”

“With Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music,” he added. “His life, his memory and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”

From the beginnings of the E Street Band in 1972, Mr. Clemons played a central part in Mr. Springsteen’s music, complementing the group’s electric guitar and driving rhythms in songs like “Born to Run” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” with muscular, melodic saxophone hooks that echoed doo-wop, soul and early rock ’n’ roll.

But equally important to the group’s image was the sense of affection and unbreakable camaraderie between Mr. Springsteen and his sax man. Few E Street Band shows were complete without a shaggy-dog story about the stormy night the two men met at a bar in Asbury Park, N.J., or a long bear hug between them at the end of the night.

In addition to his musical endeavors, Clemons also played college football, tried out for the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns, worked as a youth counselor, and beat Fidel Castro in a game of pool. In other words, he really lived, something that will no doubt be brought up at his funeral.

Other members of the E Street Band - I'm thinking especially of Roy Bittan and Little Steven - may have had a bigger influence on the Springsteen sound, but no one else had the same charisma and personality as Clemons. And that's not to cut down on his musical chops. If you put together a list of classic rock & roll sax solos, I'll bet he would have played at least half of them. His work on the Born To Run album alone should be enough to ensure his musical immortality. I honestly don't see how he can be replaced, or even if there was anyone you could find who would be willing to take his place.

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