Actor and saxophonist who grew up terrified of his grandfather’s Southern Baptist, fire-and-brimstone rants, but fell in love with the music the choir sang in church. His dad was a little less high-strung and gave Clarence an alto sax when he was nine years old. He eventually made the transition to a baritone saxophone and was good enough to make the cut in a jazz ensemble in high school. His uncle also encouraged him by buying him an LP by King Curtis that Clarence says changed his life. King Curtis and Junior Parker would continue to inform his work as he was developing his own distinct musical voice.
Music was not his only love, however. The saxophonist known as The Big Man was at one time an NFL prospect. In fact, he scored a pair of scholarships, one for football, and one for music, at Maryland State College. He went on to play for the Newark Bears in the minor leagues and the Cleveland Browns were interested and invited him to camp. His football career, however, was over before it began. Clarence was seriously injured in an automobile accident and it sidelined any plans for becoming a professional athlete.
Fortunately, he still had music, and a passion for it that was unabated. When he was eighteen years old, he got a taste of the studio scene when he sat in on sessions with Tyrone Ashley’s Funky Music Machine. During his time at MSC, he joined the ranks of The Vibratones, a James Brown cover band that lasted from 1961 to 1965. In the middle of all this, he relocated to Newark, New Jersey, and spent eight years of his life counseling troubled youth. He also got married and had two children, Charles and Clarence III.
In 1969, Clarence II was a member of Norman Seldin’s band, The Joyful Noyze, and they recorded a self-titled album. They were still together in 1971 when Norm began talking up another local singer-songwriter named Bruce Springsteen. Clarence decided to catch his act at The Student Prince. It was storming that night and when The Big Man opened the door, it became unhinged and went flying away in the wind and the rain. Clarence told Bruce he wanted to play in the band, and even The Boss wasn’t going to stand in his way, especially after his dramatic entrance.
Bruce and Clarence had immediate chemistry. When Bruce went into the recording studio and laid down his seminal tracks for an album called Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., he took Clarence with him. That original line-up also comprised Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, and Vini Lopez. Clarence was still a member of The Joyful Noyze until 21st October 1972, when he performed his final show with the band at Bayville, New Jersey’s Club Plaza. It was not until 1975’s Born to Run that Bruce and the E Street Band really broke out, with the now-classic title track driven by Roy Bittan’s piano and Clarence’s saxophone. In 1977, The Big Man made his big-screen debut in New York, New York, in which he was cast against type as a trumpeter. It was just the beginning of his second career as an actor.
In 1980, Bruce released his most ambitious project to date, a double album called The River. Clarence’s sax playing was featured prominently on several songs, including “Independence Day”, “I Wanna Marry You”, “Sherry Darling”, and “The Ties That Bind”. In the 1980s, Clarence branched out and started his own band and recorded with other artists such as Joe Cocker, Janis Ian, and Nils Lofgren. Nils would join the E Street Band in 1984 when Steve van Zandt left to pursue solo projects. That was the year that Bruce released Born in the U.S.A., an album full of hits, including the title track. The biggest hit on the album was “Dancing in the Dark”, which went to #5.
In the middle of all of this, unbelievably, Clarence was also working on his first solo album, Hero, which hit the shelves in 1985. The album garnered a top-twenty hit with “You’re a Friend of Mine”, a duet with Jackson Browne that famously featured Daryl Hannah in the video. Clarence also blew the saxophone on “Freeway of Love”, a comeback of sorts for Aretha Franklin. It was a big year for The Big Man, who also extended his acting chops on an episode of Diff’rent Strokes.
In 1989, he released his long-awaited follow-up to Hero, entitled A Night with Mr. C, to mixed reviews. Perhaps that is because the musical styles on the album were so mixed, with remakes of “Quarter to Three”, “Shotgun” and “Twistin’ the Night Away” given a modern twist by Clemons, who did a little bit of rapping and included the ‘80s obligatory synthesizer, bumping up against jazz-fusion originals. He even recited poetry on one track. The album failed to chart, but could that faze Clarence, who was in the elite group known as “The Three Most Important People in the World” in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure?
He probably wasn’t feeling like one of “The Three Most Important People in the World” when The Boss called him to give him a pink slip. Bruce dissolved the band in 1989 and Clarence was devastated. Still, he understood that Bruce had to do his own thing, and, to be fair, Clarence was still busy with his own band, The Red Bank Rockers, and found himself in demand in the studios, recording with luminaries such as Alvin Lee and Roy Orbison. He also went on tour with The Grateful Dead, The Jerry Garcia Band, and Ringo Starr and His All-Star Band.
In the 1990s, Clarence spent a good deal of time in the studio, recording his own albums. One of these was named Aja and the Big Man. “Aja” was Aja Kim, a singer-songwriter whose former claim to fame was being a member of The Iron Maidens. (Yes, there is a tribute band out there for just about everyone.) Clarence released Peacemaker in 1995 and Rescue in 1996. Around this time, he moved to The Sunshine State. In 1999, Clarence reunited with his old band-mates as Bruce and the E Street Band decided to get back together for a tour. The tour, minus a couple of interruptions, has never really ended. It just changes names.
Meantime, Clarence was busy with another new band, The Temple of Soul, and they released a pair of live albums in the new millennium that were recorded in Asbury Park. On 25th March 2008, The Temple of Soul unveiled Brothers in Arms. For more on The Big Man, check out his book, Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales.
Clarence passed away on 18th January 2011 of complications from a stroke.
Bruce Springsteen recordings
Held up without a Gun (Bruce Springsteen)
Hungry Heart (Bruce Springsteen)
Here’s his hit song “You’re a Friend of Mine” where he duets with Jackson Browne…