(AP Entertainment Writer) – The death of saxophone player Clarence Clemons ripped a hole in Bruce Springsteen’s music and onstage life, taking away a figure who had served him loyally for decades and never failed to add joy to the E Street Band's epic performances.
Clemons died on June 18 at age 69, about a week after he suffered a stroke at his home in Singer Island, Florida.
It’s not the first loss for the rock world’s best-known and most accomplished backup band. Keyboard player Danny Federici died in 2008 of melanoma. Steve Van Zandt, Springsteen’s youthful friend and closest partner, left for several years in the 1980s and was replaced on guitar by Nils Lofgren. When Van Zandt returned, Lofgren stayed.
Yet Clemons’ loss cuts deeply into the soul of the band. His importance was acknowledged whenever Springsteen performed Tenth Avenue Freeze-out, when he sang, “We made that change uptown and the Big Man joined the band,” inevitably followed by a wail of Clemons’ sax and a roar from the crowd. The two men met in 1971 on the New Jersey bar band circuit, and when Springsteen released his debut album two years later, Clemons left a more successful outfit for a new Boss.
Inevitably Clemons’ introduction was the climax every night when Springsteen presented the individual band members to the audience, accompanied by a variety of regal nicknames like “Master of the Universe” and “King of the World.”
“Do I have to say his name?” Springsteen would shout to the crowd.
“No!” came the roar back. He did anyway.
A makeshift memorial of flowers, candles and photos grew outside of the Stone Pony nightclub in Asbury Park, New Jersey, home turf where Clemons and Springsteen made frequent stage appearances through the years.
Last fall’s release of The Promise, which included a DVD of a 1978 Springsteen concert performance, underscored the central role of Clemons in the act. The two men were a marked physical contrast: a bedgraggled, slightly scrawny white guitar player and a 6-foot-5-inch, 270-plus-pound black man with a sax, known simply as the Big Man, who would be intimidating if he didn’t so often carry a smile.
They would stalk each other on the stage, staring with ferocious eyes, and play their instruments as they stood back to back, leaning on the other for support. They’d even kiss, their relationship sending a message of brotherhood, family and – given racial undertones – tolerance and respect for all.
The relationship was captured memorably with a giant photo of the two men on the cover of Springsteen’s Born to Run album.
Clemons’ death is unlikely to bring an end to the E Street Band, which Springsteen alluded to in a statement posted on his website announcing the death.
“We are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly 40 years,” he said. “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.”
Photo: Clarence Clemons