Clarence Clemons was the unmistakable presence in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. His sax style was a throwback to the hot sax sound passed down from Louis Jordan, Big Jay McNeely, Junior Walker, and King Curtis. In telling the story of the band in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (video below), Springsteen paid tribute to the day when “the Big Man joined the band.” And he portrayed himself leaning on Clemons in the beautiful black-and-white cover of the seminal album that included the song.
Clemons died today at the age of 69, before his time, following the stroke he suffered last Sunday. Ben Sisario’s New York Times obituary presents the essential facts. This account of the meeting between Springsteen and Clemons at once possesses the air of a tall tale and the ring of absolute truth:
Mr. Clemons’s first encounter with Mr. Springsteen has become E Street Band lore. In most tellings, a lightning storm was rolling through Asbury Park one night in 1971 while Mr. Springsteen was playing a gig there. As Mr. Clemons entered the bar, the wind blew the door off its hinges, and Mr. Springsteen was startled by the towering shadow at the door. Then Mr. Clemons invited himself onstage to play along, and they clicked.
“I swear I will never forget that moment,” Mr. Clemons later recalled in an interview. “I felt like I was supposed to be there. It was a magical moment. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and we fell in love. And that’s still there.”
Big Man, RIP.