The iconic sax man for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band (and Lady Gaga) towered over contemporary music for nearly five decades.
By James Montgomery
Clarence Clemons was affectionately known as "The Big Man," probably because, well, he was a big man. Standing six-feet, four-inches tall -- and nearly just as wide -- he towered over Bruce Springsteen, the E Street Band, and whomever else he shared the stage with during his five-decade career, casting a shadow as formidable as it was striking (it's no wonder Bruce decided to lean on him, like some sort of lamppost, on the cover of 1975's Born To Run).
But his physical size only told part of the story. Because Clemons was also a massive talent, a saxophonist as adept at filing an arena with his booming solos as he was providing a rock-solid backbone to Springsteen's churning, yearning rock. He was the Big Man because everything ran through him, because he was capable of both taking the lead (like on "Jungleland") and laying back in the cut (like on "10th Avenue Freeze Out," where his presence definitely shapes the song, but at no point overshadows its other components), and because of the tones he charmed from his sax ... crisp and clear-eyed, grandiose yet gritty, big yet decidedly blue-collar (just like he was), no one played like Clarence did. And when he died on Saturday at the age of 69 after complications from a stroke he suffered last week, not only did we lose a mountain of a man, but an icon as well.
Simply put, Clemons was the most prominent sax player in popular music. And as proof, I'll ask you to name any of his contemporaries. Chances are, you can't; not because they don't exist, but because they couldn't begin to approach his stature. He was the go-to guy when the stars needed a session hand (recording with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Twisted Sister, and performing live with everyone from the Grateful Dead to Ringo Starr,) and, more recently, Lady Gaga tapped him to perform on her Born This Way album -- he appears in her new "The Edge Of Glory" video, a move that no doubt introduced his sublime playing to a whole new generation of fans. Shoot, he even appeared on "The Simpsons," "The Wire" and "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," where he played, fittingly enough, one of the Three Most Important People in the World.
In passing, he leaves behind a catalog that's nearly as massive as his frame: not only his notable guest appearances, but several solo albums (and records he cut with backing bands like the Temple of Soul and the Red Bank Rockers) and, of course, the myriad of albums he cut with Springsteen and the E Street Band. And it's on those recordings -- starting with 1973's Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and continuing right on through 2009's Working on a Dream and last year's reissue The Promise -- where Clemons not only shone the brightest, but also showcased the reason why he earned his "Big Man" nickname. Sure, he burns on songs like "Badlands" and "Born To Run," but listen to his work on songs like "Prove It All Night" and "Dancing in the Dark" (to name six dozen) ... the times where he proves to be the Bigger Man, letting his fellow bandmates get their share, too.
Rarely has there been a player so soulful and selfless ... one so secure in his own status that he was willing to let others shine. It's why Clarence Clemons will forever be known as "The Big Man," and why, even in death, he still casts a formidable shadow over popular music and popular culture. He was the sax man's sax man. To paraphrase Springsteen on "Freeze Out," not only was the change was made uptown when the Big Man joined the band, but the mould was broken, too.Related Photos