There is a concert photograph from the early 1950s of saxophonist Big Jay McNeely lying flat on his back with a mouth full of wind, wailing at a crowd full of feral greasers. The all-white audience, with their eyes and fists both clenched, seem to be trying to capture rock and roll saxophone at its height, anticipating the impending arrival of the electric guitar in all its amplified glory. Within five years of that photograph the saxophone was relegated to the occasional eight bars and showmen like McNeely, Louis Jordan and Illinois Jacquet had to look for work elsewhere.
Nonetheless, tenor saxophonist Clarence Clemons–who passed away Saturday at the age of 69–was able to make a pretty good living out of his eight bar allotment, playing to the children of those clenched-fist fans for over forty years.
Clemons teamed up with Bruce Springsteen early in the formation of the E Street Band, contributing a fluttering saxophone line to “Blinded By the Light” on Springsteen's debut Greetings From Asbury Park. From there he was a regular fixture of the band, adding short, articulate blasts to tracks like “Rosalita” and “The E Street Shuffle” or honking solos on suburban epics “Born to Run” and “Badlands.” Aside from his physical contribution to the band (his six and a half foot frame easily dwarfed all his underfed bandmates) Clemons could create the illusion of an entire horn section by blending his sax with the organ's oscillating chords. He lent credibility to the band both musically and racially, drawing a direct link to the 1950s rock sound that dominated Springsteen's first few records and added a diversity that was remarkably absent of most rock bands.
Clemons found solo success in 1985 with a vocal duet featuring Jackson Browne. (The inclusion of Browne's then-girlfriend Darryl Hannah on the song and in the video probably didn't hurt.)
That same year he paid homage to King Curtis by performing on Aretha Franklin's big hit “Freeway of Love.”
Although Clemons never topped the commercial success he found in the 1980s he was in demand until his death, even appearing on Lady Gaga's Born This Way and in her video for “Edge of Glory.”
Clemons' oversized tone and outrageous stage presence helped maintain a career that many assumed was no longer available to saxophonists. He stuck pretty close to tradition and made a nice fortune and great legacy out of it. Clemons was a sideman, frontman and most importantly the Big Man. He will be missed.