The world of rock and roll knows Clarence Clemons as “the Big Man:” saxophonist, deep-throated vocalist, tambourine slapper and onstage sidekick to Bruce Springsteen. His status as a rock icon was fixed forever in the public consciousness with the cover of Springsteen’s classic 1975 album, Born to Run. The unadorned, black and white photo of Clemons blowing his sax while The Boss leans against him, guitar in hand, flew in the face of the busy-ness of most album covers of the time.
“That was a decision that Bruce made,” Clemons told me in a recent phone call from his home in Florida. “My part in the music was pretty heavy, and the music was making a statement in that period of time. He was bold enough to make a statement and put the picture out there. The music was simple, straightahead, no candy coating.”
Clemons, who grew up in Norfolk County (now the city of Chesapeake) and graduated from Crestwood High School in 1960, is one of the five new members of Norfolk’s Legends of Music Walk of Fame being inducted and enshrined next Wednesday at the Roper Performing Arts Center, along with General Norman Johnson, JoAnn Falletta, Pat Curtis and the Phelps Brothers. He’s been playing sax since he was a youngster.
“I grew up in Oak Grove,” he said, “actually in the fork where Butts Station Road and Oak Grove ran together, right in that fork in the road. It’s a highway now—the highway runs through my bedroom!
“When I was nine, my father bought the saxophone. He had a fish market in Berkley and I went to elementary school in Berkley. I started playing saxophone, practicing, then I took lessons at Norfolk State College. I’d take the trolley over to Norfolk State, dragging the horn, but it was a great start.”
His is one of the most recognizable saxophone sounds in music, a growling, full throttled tone that recalls the early days of ‘50s rock-n-roll. But Clemons says it originated in the church.
“Actually it’s a more spiritual tone,” he explained. “I grew up in my grandfather’s church and that was where we heard the music growing up. But I was mostly influenced by King Curtis, Junior Walker, Boots Randolph.
“My grandfather was at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church down in Norfolk County. I also went to Oak Grove Baptist Church with my aunt, where she sang. And I watched what an impact the music had on the people; it was just amazing. It did what I wanted my music to do—I wanted my music to stir people, to make you feel something. So that’s where my tone developed.”
He has certainly stirred a lot of listeners during the thirty five years since he first hooked up with Springsteen. But music was not his first career choice; football was. In fact, football is what took him to New Jersey, where he would meet his longtime employer.
“I went to Maryland State College [now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore] on a scholarship,” he recalled. “I wanted to play professionally and I played semi-pro with the New Jersey Generals. Then I had a chance to hopefully play for the Cleveland Browns, but I was in a car accident and that kicked me out of football. So the horn took the spotlight in my life.
“All the time I was hoping to play football, I always had my horn in the car and I’d go out jamming. My first town where I started working was Jamesburg, New Jersey, which is west of Asbury Park. I was messing around with the horn, jamming—when I heard a band playing, I’d jump out and play. I met this guy named Norman Selden who had a band, and I was playing with him. The girl singer was telling me about this guy Bruce. She saw this thing happening, and she said ‘you guys ought to get together, it would be something really fantastic.’
“A couple of months later, he and I did finally get together and she was right. It was an instant thing, I knew it. It was an instant marriage right there.”
He became a cornerstone of Springsteen’s E Street Band, and the two have been close ever since. It’s a friendship that has paid off in many ways.
“His dedication to what he believes is a high point,” the Big Man said of The Boss. “He’s so dedicated and it rubbed off on me, it inspired me, and it still inspires me.”
Clemons has had quite a life outside the band as well. In addition to a string of solo albums, he’s recorded with Aretha Franklin, Jackson Browne, Joe Cocker and fellow local Legend of Music, Gary “US” Bonds.
“Right now,” he said, “I’m in the middle of editing a movie I’ve been working on for two years. It’s a documentary about my life in China. I married a Chinese woman and bought a house in China. I spend a lot of time there. It’s about my spiritual life, traveling on the road in China.
“I lived in northern China and that’s a place where nobody knows my name, nobody’s ever heard of Bruce Springsteen. Nobody had ever seen a black man before. It was an eye-opening, life changing experience just to walk down the street there. To be accepted for who I am—they didn’t know the saxophone player there. They just saw a person who was warm and generous, and had an open heart. And that’s the way they accepted me.”
Although he grew up in the pre-‘60s era of segregation, Clemons has positive memories of his childhood days here:
“David Starkey is a white guy and he was my best friend. He went to Great Bridge and I went to Crestwood. It was so weird how we played together all day and hung out together, but when we went to school, we went to two different schools.
“There were little odd things, but I have so many great memories. I had some great friends and I can’t imagine growing up anywhere other than where I did. I was a very fortunate person to be able to grow up in the Tidewater area because it was just open and you could go for it. I really am proud of where I grew up, proud of what it was and proud of what it’s becoming.”
We’re proud of him too. I asked how it felt to be honored as a “Legend” in his own hometown.
“That is something unbelievable,” he replied, “something I never dreamed of. I never think about these things, rewards or awards, but when it’s in your hometown…I really appreciate it.”
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.