Big Joe’s wild time with sax icon Clarence Clemons

Big Joe’s wild time with sax icon Clarence Clemons

This week would have been Clarence Clemons’ 81st birthday. He was taken from this earth way too early in June 2011. It seems that it was only yesterday when I was deeply sorry to hear this news.

The “Big Man” was known as one of the best saxophonists in the business. You’ll be amazed at the volume and variety of music he’s lent his talent to, including Jackson Browne, Aretha Franklin and even the Grateful Dead. He has appeared on TV shows, Different Strokes, The Simpsons, Nash Bridges and The Wire to name a few.

Bridgestone Super Bowl XLIII Halftime Show

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Bruce Springsteen best described Clarence when he and the E Street Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, describing first meeting the Big Man. Here is Bruce’s quote:

“That night we stood together for the first time, I looked over at C and it looked like his head was reaching into the clouds. I felt like a normal mortal flitting about the earth, you know. But he always picked me up. Far, far, high. Together we told a story about the possibilities of friendship, a story that predates the one I was writing and a story I could never have told without him by my side.”

Clarence played every gig like the end of the world; it didn’t matter if it was in front of 100 people in a bar in Asbury Park or in front of 120,000 at Wembly Stadium in England.

He began playing the saxophone at age nine and grew up in Norfolk, VA, the son of a fishman and grandson of a preacher who despised rock and roll. He was athletic, playing football in college and then semi-pro. He moved to the Jersey Shore and played with a few bands until he met Bruce Springsteen on that faithful night in 1971.

I interviewed Clarence when the band was on the final leg of their Born to Run tour in 1976.

They performed at the Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis and I worked at the campus radio station. I had so much fun talking to Clarence that I literally forgot we were recording. The stories were numerous and full of antics and tangles, including several situations of racism he witnessed on the streets of Europe. I became a big fan of his that night.

My favorite moment with Clarence Clemons was back in Minneapolis in 1984, kicking off the Born in the USA tour.

We were all staying in the same hotel. It was a night off for the band, and Clarence and I ended up in the outbuilding hotel bar, which was empty except for Clarence and me. Clarence asked me if I had ever tried Metaxas. Unfortunately I said no.

Three bottles later and big payouts to the bartender for continuing this madness, we stumbled off the barstool at 3:30am. The next morning I felt embalmed. I met the Big Man and his wife at breakfast and she told me to stay away as we would cause trouble together. Clarence smiled at me with that big grin and shrugged. She was right. We’d hang out again, but never to the extent of that epic night in Minneapolis.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert

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He was the best, whether you’ve seen him at his Big Man’s West club or driven by Sea Bright or were a fan at one of the shows, he was an icon and we will all miss him. There are many songs he has played that have brought everyone to a life only he could. The song “Jungleland” from the album “Born to Run” is probably one of the best sax solos ever played and remains one of my favourites.

Happy birthday, big man! Thank you for your talent, your friendship and that big grin – that’s what I miss the most.

The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 weekend host Big Joe Henry. All opinions expressed are those of Big Joe.

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