When the change was made uptown
And the big man joined the band
From the coastline to the city
All the little pretties raise their hands
Im gonna sit back right easy and laugh
When scooter and the big man bust this city in half
Bruce Springsteen’s song, ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’, the second track on Born To Run, loosely tells the story of the formation of the E Street Band. In the third verse, the song’s protagonist, ‘Bad Scooter’ (a pseudonym for Springsteen himself) tells how the ‘Big Man’ joined the band. This was Clarence Clemons, saxophonist, whose death this weekend following a stroke is a huge loss. It’s difficult to imagine the E. Street Band without him.
On stage with the band, Springsteen seemed to reserve a special place in his affections for Clarence. He would often launch into an extended monologue to introduce ‘The E Street Shuffle’, in which he described how he and Steve Van Zandt encountered ‘The Big Man’, after a particularly discouraging gig on a wet and windswept night sometime in September 1971, all 6 foot 4 inches of him heading along the boardwalk straight for them: ‘Walkin’ like there ain’t no rain, no wind.. ‘. Springsteen recalls how ‘when we touched it was like sparks fly on E Street’.
Some kind soul has uploaded this monologue to YouTube, recorded at a legendary show at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village in August 1975:
In an interview, Clemons once recalled their first meeting somewhat differently:
One night we were playing in Asbury Park. I’d heard The Bruce Springsteen Band was nearby at a club called The Student Prince and on a break between sets I walked over there. On-stage, Bruce used to tell different versions of this story but I’m a Baptist, remember, so this is the truth. A rainy, windy night it was, and when I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band were on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway. And maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, “I want to play with your band,” and he said, “Sure, you do anything you want.” The first song we did was an early version of “Spirit In The Night”. Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything, we just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives. He was what I’d been searching for. In one way he was just a scrawny little kid. But he was a visionary. He wanted to follow his dream. So from then on I was part of history.
Yesterday Springsteen said this about Clemons:
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.
Another YouTube tribute begins with Bruce giving one of his typical on stage introductions to the saxophonist, before offering a performance of ‘Sherry Darling’ that features a great solo from Clemons:
Clemons’ father was a fish market owner in Norfolk, Virginia. More significantly, perhaps,his grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher so he grew up listening to gospel music. When he was nine, his father gave him an alto saxophone as a Christmas present and paid for music lessons. His uncle also influenced his early musical development when he bought him his first King Curtis album. Clemons formed his first band, The Vibratones, in 1961 and for about four years they played James Brown covers. It was while playing with The Vibratones that he moved to Newark, New Jersey to work with emotionally disturbed children. Playing music in the clubs along the Jersey shore by night, he was moving among the same circle of local musicians as Springsteen. History was about to happen.
In addition to his work with the E Street Band, Clemons recorded with many other artists and, in 1981, formed his own band, Red Bank Rockers. Their second album, Hero, included a duet with Jackson Browne, ‘You’re a Friend of Mine’, featured on this YouTube tribute:
Them boys are still on the corner, loose and doin’ that lazy E Street Shuffle
As them sweet summer nights turn into summer dreams
Little Angel picks up Power and he slips on his jeans as they move on out down to the scene
All the kids are dancin’…