Clarence Clemons, E Street Band's soulful sideman, dead at 69

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews | 7/13/2011, 2:56 p.m.

The sound was as unmistakable as Bruce Springsteen's heartfelt vocals. That sound was the saxophone masterfully played by Clarence Clemons with Springsteen's E Street Band since 1972.

Clemons died on June 18 from complications related to a stroke. Not surprisingly, there was a memorial at the legendary Stone Pony in Asbury Park, where the E Street Band held court so many nights, with fans leaving flowers, candles and countless messages of love for the Big Man.

There was no doubt that the beloved Big Man with the big horn was the soul of the band. He and Springsteen shared a brother onstage and off. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, Clemons was a giant as a musician and as a person. He became a celebrity in his own right.

Clarence Anicholas Clemons was born on Jan. 11, 1942, in Norfolk, Va. He grew up in a religious background and was surrounded by gospel music but gravitated toward rock 'n' roll. He received an alto saxophone at age 9 as a Christmas present. He was a born rocker.

Clemons was also a gifted athlete, attending Maryland State College on a scholarship for football and music. He tried out for the Dallas Cowboys and the Cleveland Browns, but a knee injury dashed his football dreams.

He worked as a youth counselor in Newark, which got him into the Jersey Shore music scene. That's where he met up with Springsteen. It was an odd mix, as the racially integrated group would have fewer places to play. Nonetheless, Springsteen and Clemons were a match made in musical heaven, and soon the whole world would know it. Clemons put his stamp on classics like "Born to Run," "Jungle Land" and "Hungry Heart."

Besides the E Street Band, Clemons performed with Jackson Browne, Aretha Franklin and, most recently, Lady Gaga. But the Big Man will always be remembered for the indelible impact he made on Springsteen's band.

Rolling Stone magazine reported on Springsteen's delivery of Clemons' eulogy. "Big Man, thank you for your kindness, your strength, your dedication, your work, your story," said Springsteen. "Thanks for the miracle, and for letting a little white boy slip through the side door of the Temple of Soul."