Chuck Ross

How Clarence Clemons Helped Bruce Springsteen Make Rock ‘n’ Roll History

Jun 22, 2011

The music my parents loved was big bands, jazz standards and Sinatra. As I tried to find my own identity I fell in love with other kinds of music, starting with blues shouters such as Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris.

At the same time, like most baby boomers, I liked rock ‘n’ roll. What quickly struck me was a connection between the blues shouters I liked and the rock ‘n’ roll of Little Richard and the other early rockers: the blasting wild riffs of those who played the tenor sax.

Many music historians credit 19-year-old Illinois Jacquet’s tenor sax solo on Lionel Hampton’s 1942 hit “Flying Home” as a milestone recording that first brought a lot of attention to how the tenor saxophone could rock like no other instrument.

And what I learned from so many of the recordings of the blues shouters is just how soulful the tenor sax was, that it could express the most joyful highs of life as well as the most sorrowful, tortured lows.

If you want to hear some great music, just click and check out some of these blues and early rock ‘n roll tracks featuring the likes of tenor sax players Hal Singer (who played on a lot of Wynonie Harris hits), Red Prysock, Joe Houston, Big Jay McNeely and Sam “The Man” Taylor.

For the most part, by the mid-fifties, the popularity and prevalence of the tenor sax in rock ‘n’ roll was diminishing.

Flash forward to this week 36 years ago, back in 1975. A photo shoot for the album cover of a record a rock ‘n’ roll wannabe hoped would be his breakout. He was 25 years old, and already a cult sensation, but not a hugely popular one.

He had poured his heart and soul into this album, writing eight songs, each lasting in length from three minutes to nine and a half minutes. Unlike his previous albums, almost all the songs were much more accessible, both lyrically and musically. On the music side it was clear that he was influenced by Phil Spector’s wall of sound.

Another breakthrough of the album was the return of the tenor sax. Not only was it featured, front and center, on a number of the songs, but this tenor sax man was also a featured player in the band–and on the album cover.

The LP was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” with the great cover shot of Springsteen leaning on Clarence Clemons, who died much too young earlier this week at age 69, after suffering a stroke.

The album is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll records ever–back in 2003 Rolling Stone magazine listed it as the 18th best album in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

The contribution of Clemons to the success of that album alone, and to the success Springsteen has enjoyed over the years as a live performer, cannot be overstated. In another context I recall some time ago someone on the Web writing that without the tenor sax rock can roll, but can’t really rock.

I wholeheartedly agree, and Clemons’ playing on the “Born to Run” album is phenomenal. Check out this must-see version of “Jungleland” from a live performance in Jersey in 1978.

In his tribute to Clemons earlier this week, Jon Pareles, The New York Times’ estimable pop music critic, wrote, “[I]n a band that constantly proved itself on the road, from Asbury Park club gigs to its decades of headlining arenas, Mr. Clemons’ presence was always as significant as his sound. He was, in his resonantly matter-of-fact nickname, the Big Man, 6 feet 4 inches and built like the football player he might have been but for knee troubles. He was by far the E Street Band’s flashiest dresser, in eye-popping suits and broad-brimmed hats; Mr. Springsteen gleefully let himself be upstaged by a sideman he’d never place in the background. They were by all accounts dear friends, even soulmates; Mr. Clemons often described their relationship as nothing less than love (but of a nonsexual kind). Onstage, with thousands of spectators, Mr. Springsteen would bow at his feet or hold him in a close hug, presenting him as a muse, not an employee.”

Then there was that picture on the cover of “Born to Run,” Springsteen leaning on Clemons.

On the Springsteen fansite Backstreets.com this week, I found this interview with Erik Meola, who took the famous cover photo. This interview first appeared in the Syracuse Post-Standard:

“Meola said the photo mattered on several levels. In a basic way, it captured the love and fraternity between two musicians at the core of a seismic moment in rock and roll. Yet it also made a more profound statement, Meola said. He knows it was no accident that Springsteen chose Clemons, of all the members of the band, to be his companion on the cover of what they sensed would be an album of groundbreaking importance.

“ ‘Clarence was black and Bruce was white, and when they started playing together it was at a moment when that just didn’t happen that much,’ Meola said. ‘Some of it is subliminal; the album was all black and white, and the cover was black and white, and they were dressed in black and white. Many people loved the way they played off each other onstage, and I think Clarence opened up a whole other way, a little like Jackie Robinson was with baseball: It just cleared the air out. And I don’t think that’s emphasized enough.

“ ‘The way I look at it, what’s monumental to me, is the camaraderie and friendship. I was lucky to get that photograph, I’m just glad I was there and I’d give anything for Clarence still to be alive.’ ”

Wouldn’t we all.

As Springsteen himself said upon hearing of Clemons’ death, “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.” #

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