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Clarence Clemons mourned by Springsteen, others

for Journal Register Newspapers

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Bruce Springsteen had a myriad of nicknames for Clarence Clemons during his ritualistic concert introductions over the years -- King of the World, Master of the Universe, the Superman of the Saxophone, the Sexiest Man Alive.

And, of course, The Big Man.

Clemons, whose photo alongside Springsteen on the cover of 1975's "Born to Run" album is one rock 'n' roll's most iconic images, died Saturday (June 18) in Miami of complications from he stroke suffered on June 12. He was 69.

Springsteen's manager Jon Landau announced Clemons' passing "with overwhelming sadness," while Springsteen issued a statement saying that, "Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly 40 years.

"He was my great friend, my partner and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band."

Other colleagues were quick to express condolences via Twitter. ?uestlove of the Roots wrote "RIP Clarence Clemons. A True Legend. He will be absolutely missed," while Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello tweeted, "Thank you so much Big Man for sweetening the sound of our planet with your sax and your soul."

Clemons -- who is survived by his fifth wife, Victoria, and four sons and recalled his life in the 2009 memoir "Big Man" -- had dealt with numerous health problems in recent years, including two knee replacements and spinal fusion surgery. He has acknowledged being in constant pain during his last few tours with Springsteen and the E Street Band.

His last public performance was with Lady Gaga on the May 25 season finale of "American Idol;" Clemons played on two songs on Gaga's new album "Born This Way" -- "Edge of Glory" and "Hair." He was supposed to perform at Game 2 of the NBA Finals but couldn't because of a hand injury.

Clemons was born in Norfolk, Va., the oldest of three children born to Clarence Clemons, Sr., who owned a fish market, and his wife Thelma. It was, Clemons said, "a very spiritual family" whose patriarch, his grandfather, was a Southern Baptist preacher, as was one of his uncles.

"So the church played a big part in my life," Clemons noted, "but all the time my grandfather was screaming about how the devil would get you, it didn't make much sense to me because I always thought about God as being love, the feeling of love.

"But when the choir sang, it changed everything for me and I saw the power that the music had, how the people would get so wrapped up in the music. And that feeling in my heart, it was just exciting, so I decided, 'This is what I want to do in my life. I want to bring this joy to people.' "

Clemons' musical path began when he was nine and he received an alto saxophone as a Christmas present. He switched to baritone sax in the high school band and soon fell under the spell of King Curtis after an uncle gave him one of the legendary soul saxophonist's albums. He attended Maryland State College on a combined football and music scholarship; there he played in his first band, the Vibratones, and on a team that included future pro football star Emerson Boozer.

Clemons had his own shot at the National Football League when the Cleveland Browns asked him to try out -- which he never made because of a serious car accident the day before that scuttled any prospects of turning pro. "But I loved music just as much (as football) -- maybe more," Clemons said, "so I like to think there might have been some divine intervention involved."

A job working with emotionally disturbed children led Clemons to New Jersey, where he wound up in another group called Norman Seldin & the Joyful Noyze and also recorded a solo album that's never been released in its entirety. The Joyful Noyze played the same circuit as Springsteen, and Clemons recalled that he kept hearing about "this guy, 'Bruce! Bruce! Bruce!' " from Joyful Noyze singer Karen Cassidy.

"She said, 'When you guys meet each other and hook up, it's gonna change music. It's gonna change rock 'n' roll. It's gonna change your life,' " Clemons said with a laugh. He largely dismissed the hyperbole, but one night, when the Joyful Noyze was playing at the Wonder Bar and Springsteen's group was playing three blocks away at the Student Prince in Asbury Park, Clemons decided to check Springsteen out -- a fateful night that, as legend goes, was dark and stormy and the Student Prince door blew off its hinges when Clemons entered, his intimidating silhouette filling the club's doorway.

"That was actually what happened," Clemons insisted. "I was the only black man in the house, standing in the doorway with this thunder and lightning behind me. I walk in and I see Bruce and I say, 'I want to sit in,' and what's he gonna say -- 'No' to this big black guy?

"So I just sat in with him, and the reality of the whole thing came to life. We looked at each other, and I will never forget his face...and how I felt. After we looked into each others' eyes we saw the whole deal, and when I walked out of there I knew that we would be together. He was what I needed in my life, and I was what he needed in his life."

It's a friendship and working relationship that survived throughout the years, even during the decade-long hiatus Springsteen put the E Street Band on ice in 1989. In "Big Man," Clemons -- whose solos were signatures of such Springsteen favorites as "Thunder Road," "Jungleland" and "Rosalita" -- recounted Springsteen's decision, giving him the news in a phone call while the Big Man was touring Japan with Ringo Starr's first All-Starr Band.

"For the first half an hour, 45 minutes after (the conversation), I was very angry and extremely hurt," Clemons remembered. "I had these dreams of us getting to this point and we hadn't gotten there yet. But then the reality of it all came...I said, 'You know, I know this is what he wants to do, and...it's fine. I was just thankful for the opportunity that I`d had.

"But I also said to myself, 'This is not forever. This is jsut a temporary thing while Bruce is gonna try other things.' So I got through it. I knew it would come back and it did, so here we are."

Clemons had, in fact, started pursuing things outside the E Street Band while the group was still active. He appeared as a trumpet player in Martin Scorsese's 1977 film "New York, New York" and as a guest star on TV's "Diff'rent Strokes" in 1985 -- and released his first his first solo album, "Rescue," in 1983. In 1985 he released a second album, "Hero," dueted with Jackson Browne on the single "You're a Friend of Mine" and played the sax solo on Aretha Franklin's hit "Freeway of Love." While the E Street Band was down he released more albums -- "A Night With Mr. C" in 1991 and "Peacemaker" in 1995 -- formed a band, the Temple of Soul, and did some more acting.

He also continued studies with Sri Chinmoy, the guru he met through fellow musician and Temple of Soul member Narada Michael Walden, who told Clemons that his purpose in life was indeed "to bring joy and light to people."

After the E Street Band went back on tour, Springsteen fans worried about Clemons as they saw him seated on stage when he wasn't playing, and Clemons acknowledged in 2009 that "I was worried about me, too, but everything's better now. I'm not a young man anymore, but I AM a young man. I feel like I've been re-born. I went through these hardships but I came out and I'm much better for it.

"I'm getting stronger all the time, and I haven't lost the zeal or the energy to do this (music), you know?"

As the E Street Band wound down its latest round of touring two years ago -- after four albums during the 90s -- Clemons was looking forward more. He declared the group in fine shape, even after the loss of keyboardist Danny Federici, who died in 2008 from cancer, and drummer Max Weinberg's part-time status due to his commitments to "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien."

"It still feels really good," he said. "The band is pretty set. I don't know if any other band could just grab a song in front of 60,000 people that you've never played before, like we do, and play it damn good. This is a very special band, and I think we appreciate that more and more now."

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