Clemons is one of the most searched for saxophone players. We all know ‘The Big Man’ (yes, he’s tall!) from his long career playing with Bruce Springsteen from 1972 until he died in 2011, a true sax great from the rock’n’roll world this time, rather than jazz.
Clemons grew up in Virginia listening to gospel music – his father was a Southern Baptist preacher. He got his first saxophone, an alto, for Christmas when he was 9 years old, taking lessons and playing in the school jazz band where he switched to baritone. It was when his uncle gave him a King Curtis album that Clarence switched to tenor – King Curtis would remain one of his biggest influences.
However, it could have all turned out differently – Clemons was on his way to a career in the NFL, but a car accident ruined his knee. Football’s loss was rock’n’roll’s gain.
In the first half of the 1960s, Clemons played in his first band, The Vibratones. They played James Brown covers and moved to New Jersey – which was where he’d meet Springsteen. That first meeting was the stuff of legend, but you can read about it elsewhere! Bruce called on Clemons to play on a couple of tracks on his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, M.J. in 1972, and then asked him to join the band. The rest is history, although Clemons has had many solo side projects and collaborations, as well as some acting roles.
Clarence Clemons’s saxophone setup:
Tenor Sax Selmer VI with a Dukoff D9 or Berg Larsen mouthpiece. These mouthpieces are metal ones often favoured for their bright and edgy sound which enables the Smooth Jazz or rock’n’roll saxophonist to cut through the sound of loud guitars and drums. Clemons also uses a growl in the throat to dirty his sound (see more about that in my video here).
Suprisingly, there aren’t many clips of Clemons playing available to view, however, there are many versions of the classic Clemons solo – the epic one in the middle of Born To Run’s ‘Jungleland’. Simple – but what power and emotion! In the version linked to below, see how close Bruce and Clarence are too.
But you can also see The Big Man in action for a final time in the video for Lady Gaga’s ‘Edge of Glory’ he shot just days before he suffered a fatal stroke in 2011.