What “The Big Man” Clarence Clemons Brought to the E-Street Band


Clarence Clemons brought with him an element of spiritualism. He grew up with a grandfather who was a southern Baptist preacher, and as a result, had a colorful gospel background. His dressing room, always lined with candles, would later be called the “Temple of Soul.”


He was a solid rock, in the most literal sense. Put it this way: If you had never heard of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band and saw one of their concerts on TV, you would have asked yourself, “Why did their saxophone player not make the show? And why is their security guard filling in for him?” He was 6 foot 4 and about 250 pounds. That’s enough evidence to know that it was Clarence who took care of any drunkard who got in the face of Bruce, or anyone from the band at a bar. If it weren’t for his father giving him the alto sax for Christmas when he was a child, he probably would have been a lineman for a professional football team—the Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys showing the most interest.


Clarence radiated love, especially onstage. Love for his family, Love for his fans (when the band would come onstage and then walk off after the show, he made you feel, more so than the others, I think, like you were the only one he was waving and blowing kisses to when he’d look toward your section), and he exuded love for his band mates—it was Clarence, who, when recollecting about the first time he got to play with Bruce, said, “…and that night, Bruce and I fell in love.”


He just may very well have been the coolest man on Earth. There was something about the vibrant suits he would wear during the 70s and 80s, sometimes accompanied with all-black sunglasses, that was cool. There was something about a huge black man amidst an all-Caucasian and rather un-intimidating group of musicians—despite Steven Van Zandt’s stint on The Soprano’s—that was cool. There was something about the chair he would sit in during three-hour concerts in the last years of his life—because the physical toll on his body wouldn’t allow him to stand, but he wanted to keep performing with the band—that was cool (and many other adjectives). There was something about a man who was surrounded by gospel music his entire upbringing, but instead, wanted to rock that was cool. There was something about a man who, upon first playing with Bruce, demanded that he be in his band, leaving Bruce to nervously say, “Sure, you do anything you want” that was cool. The guy was just cool, in every sense of the word.


Clarence was ALWAYS the last to be named during Bruce’s band member introductions. Not only was he always the final piece, Bruce would often introduce him as if he was larger than life—some type of wondrous, mythical force of nature. Bruce would say, “He’s the minister of soul” “The secretary of the brotherhood” “The next President of the United States” “Probably the next King of England” “The biggest man you’ve ever seen!” And then, with the crowd roaring to respond, and with Clarence, front and center, hands crossed, absorbing the moment, Bruce would explode: “Do I have to say his name?! Do I have to say his name?! DO I HAVE TO SAY HIS NAME?! Give me a C-L-A-R-E-N-C-E,” with the crowd chanting every letter back, Bruce would ask, “What’s that spell?!” “CLAAAAREEENCCEE” the thousands would answer. Bruce, most notably, ended the sequence with, “I have seen the history of the whole fuckin’ thing, and it’s the Big Man, Clarence Clemons!”

You’re damn right it was. And it was the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, bowing his thanks to all who took part in that moment, every time.


I’ll have to give my Dad credit for this one (and for undoubtedly being the one who forced Springsteen’s music upon me around the time when I was getting potty-trained). A couple days after Clarence’s death, he said, “If you really think about it, how many saxophone players have there been throughout rock n’ roll history?”

It’s true. He was revolutionary not just for the E-Street Band, but for a genre. Sure, there have been saxophonists in famous rock bands and on many rock albums. But were any of them used as prominently as Clarence? Was their sound an essential backbone throughout a band’s existence like Clarence and his saxophone were to the E- Street Band? I’m not a rock n’ roll historian, but so many of the band’s greatest songs were driven by the power of that horn. If you had taken him out, you would have sworn something was missing. Which leads right into…



Clarence’s famous solo on Born to Run’s final track lasts about 2 minutes and 12 seconds, but it seems like an eternity. It’s widely considered one of the greatest sax solos of all-time. It’s been said that when Springsteen left Jungleland off of the band’s greatest hits album in 1995, Clarence was not happy. He loved the song more than any other, and believed his bone-chilling solo deserved that type of recognition.

But I’d like to think Jungleland, and more importantly Clarence’s sax solo, didn’t need to be placed in between a couple of hits on a compilation. It stands by itself, in another world now, behind the power of the Big Man.

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4 Comments on “What “The Big Man” Clarence Clemons Brought to the E-Street Band”

  1. 06.29.11 at 11:55 AM #

    Whoever wrote this is amazing.

  2. 06.29.11 at 6:40 PM #

    Rest in Peace, Big Man.


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