Clarence Clemons

Big Plans, And A New Album, For The Big Man

Clarence Clemons

From his earliest days as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, from the moment the Boss leaned on his broad shoulders for the cover of "Born to Run," Clarence Clemons has been an iconic figure in rock music. As the soulful sax player with a gift for the perfect riff, Clemons has become the most popular member of Springsteen's musical compatriots, receiving thunderous ovations of his own when setting foot on arena stages around the world.

Despite the immense shadow that the "world's greatest band" may cast over Clemons'' career, it still remains only a portion of his varied and accomplished rèsumè which, in addition to an enviable discography, includes screen roles in movie and television. He continues to broaden his range of projects by delving into scriptwriting and music composition.

Growing up in Norfolk County, Virginia, Clemons was exposed to Gospel music at an early age, attending services hosted by his grandfather, a Baptist preacher. While secular music was not approved of, Clemons was amazed at how music affected people. An unexpected, and unwanted, gift of a sax from his father at age nine would later prove to be a turning point in life.

Later, after being exposed to King Curtis and Elvis, he decided that a career in music was preferable to working a nine-to-five, and began to devote himself seriously to the instrument. He started playing in jazz bands, and while he continued to play in high school, a successful football career was developing that would push music somewhat into the background.

But football wasn't to be. He won a football scholarship to the University of Maryland, and left school early in an attempt to go pro. He moved to New Jersey, playing offensive center and defensive end for the New Jersey Generals and the Newark Bears. On the eve of his try-out for the the Bears' parent team, the Cleveland Browns, he was in a serious auto accident that ended his football career, and gave an incredible gift to the world of music.

Rededicating himself to the sax and refining his sound, Clemons began playing around the Jersey scene. The rest is history.

The story of Clemons walking down to the Student Prince club in Asbury Park, New Jersey, to hear some kid named Springsteen perform, opening the door only to have it rip off its hinges and blow down the street is now the stuff of legend. As the story goes, Clemons told Springsteen that he wanted to play in his band and Springsteen, amazed at the scene of this imposing figure in the doorway against the stormy night, agreed. Millions and millions of fans around the world have heard the fruits of this partnership on a long list of recorded materials and countless marathon live shows that draw one of the most rabid and devoted base of fans in rock.

Clemons has broadened his musical rèsumè into different genres and lent his talents to the work of other performers as well. He had recorded or performed live with Aretha Franklin, the Jerry Garcia Band, The Grateful Dead, Ringo Starr's All-Star Band, Paul Young, Great White, Alvin Lee, Roy Orbinson and Patti LeBelle, as well as his own band, The Red Bank Rockers, in the early 1980s.

In addition, he has acted on several television series and featured roles on film, notably Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Blues Brothers 2000.

On Labor Day weekend 2001, Clemons performed four shows in two days at the legendary Stone Pony rock club in Asbury Park, a short walk away from his old haunts and right down the road from the seedy remains of the Student Prince. There, he and his band, the Temple of Soul, tore through a series of songs showcasing the range of his history, as well as infusing the new vibe that he has picked up in the Latin rhythms of his new home community of South Florida.

A CD of portions of this live show, Live In Asbury Park, was released in November 2002. It contains thirteen tracks of Clemons' original music, as well as several Springsteen covers. In January 2004, an additional album's worth of material from this memorable weekend, Live In Asbury Park, Volume II, rewards fans with more memories from the "rollicking, rock n' roll party," including "Pink Cadillac," "Friend Of Mine," "Lights of The City," and, with special guest Bruce Springsteen on lead vocals, "Raise Your Hand."

Chorus and Verse interviewed Clemons shortly after the release of Volume II to discuss both his latest release and the big plans that the Big Man has for 2004.

"Live in Asbury Park, Volume II," is the second CD of tracks from your now-famous live shows at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park in September 2001. Is "Volume II" simply an extension of the first disc, or are there any differences in the feel and mood of this second release?

I would say that "Volume II" is an enhanced extension of the first disc. The feel and mood are the same in a groove sense but you may find that the production in this CD is more refined. That was possible because of having more time and fresh production Ideas.

Had you always planned to release the show in two parts, or is the second album being released because of the success of the first one?

After releasing "Live in Asbury Park," I went back over the tracks, finding out that there were a few songs that could have been on the CD. At the same time, I got [the] blessing of being able to use "Raise Your Hand," the Bruce track. These were the major incentives for the release of "Volume II".

For many fans, one of the highlights of the new album will be "Raise Your Hand," featuring Bruce Springsteen on vocals. Springsteen made one of his legendary surprise Stone Pony appearances during one of your four shows that weekend. Can you give us a little background into how that guest spot was arranged? How far in advance were you aware that he was available and able to play at the gig? Did any planning go into which songs he would do, or was it all impromptu during the show itself?

There were no arrangement or rehearsals. I let him know that I was playing, the date and invited him to see my band and hear my music. He came, he saw, he jammed. He has done that before at other gigs with me and my band, and it has always been a highlight of the evening.

You've said that the "Live in Asbury Park" concerts include Latin influences you've encountered since moving to South Florida. Can you elaborate on the music you've encountered in South Beach, and how you've integrated it into your sound?

There is no place like South Beach, Miami, Florida. The warm, balmy breezes at night. The floral smells mixed with a slight aroma of Cuban food. The invigorating sounds of Latin rhythm infused with rock and roll; that's how it got started for me.

So, now I say "Meet me on the corner of Park Avenue and South Beach." This combination of musical energy does it for me.

Since moving to South Florida, you have become very involved with community projects there, raising money and helping schools and charity organizations. How important is community service to you, and what are some of the personal rewards of engaging in such contributions?

Being involved in the well-being and advancement of one's own community is a most natural thing to do. I am involved with and champion for the Cystic Fibroses Foundation of South Florida.

One of the things that I do that is closest to my heart is my planned visits to as many local middle schools as possible. In these visits I get the chance talk to and listen to the future of our nation. I show a few videos of my past history, play a little sax and give a little talk on the subject; what it takes to reach the seemingly unreachable.

After all, we are neighbors.

My personal reward comes in the moments when a person comes up to me and tells me that my visit to their son's or daughter's school had made a difference in their lives.

JAY Ministries of Riviera Beach is the organization that I work hard for. This is an organization who's leader, Bob Fieldman, is a constant source of [strength]. His determination and dedication to taking men and, soon, more women off the streets, providing them with food and shelter and, when they are ready, he reintroduces them back into society and the work force.

Let's backtrack on a little bit of your personal history. You were exposed to gospel music at an early age, and your father bought you your first sax at age nine. At the time, was it something you wanted to play, or was it pushed on you?

At the time, I did not know what the saxophone was. As the story goes, I wanted an electric train for Christmas but I got the saxophone instead. After hearing King Curtis, I saw the light. After that, I learned to love the horn.

Did you have formal training when learning to play, or did you pick the instrument up on your own?

I had a few private lesions in the beginning. Then came the high school concert band. I played football so I did not play in the marching band.

Can you read music, or do you learn and play by ear?

I do read music, but I prefer playing from the heart.

Your early exposure to religious music has continued throughout your life, and there always seems to be a spiritual and inspirational aspect to your playing. You also tend to draw upon religious imagery, such as "Temple of Soul" and "Church of What's Happening Now!" What do you feel is the connection between music and spirituality and do you feel that your spiritual side adds to the expression of your music?

My exposure to religion and religious music in my early life was a total positive thing. It has enabled me to become the Man that I am today.

You eluded to my "spiritual side." The word "spiritual," not the word "religious", is the key. My early exposure to "religion" opened the door for me to understanding and [to] embrace a spiritual life. In the mental calmness of a spiritual life, I have found that the answers to the whys in our lives are able to come to you. In my music I find the same thing.

The calm mind allows one to connect with the inner self, the Soul, the very source of our being. That's where the music lives. That's where my music comes from.

You've described the sax as an "urban instrument," and have created one of the most distinctive sax sounds in music. Does it surprise you that the sax hasn't become a more common part of the urban, hip-hop and R&B sound that has become so popular over the past few years?

My description of the sax as an urban instrument was derived because when I think of the sax I visualize a city street at night, a lamp post on a corner, sax player under it, just after a light rain.

I see a crowded little club downstairs off of some back alley. The stillness of the night is accentuated by the unmistakable confessions of a saxophone in any [city], USA.

Do you feel that your playing has influenced other musicians, and are there any other sax players that inspire you today?

Yes, my sax playing has inspired as well as influenced other musicians. Now that I am much older than a lot of my musical peers, I have had a number of sax players come up to me and tell me that I was responsible for them playing sax. Some of them I have admired over the years.

I was inspired by a few great players; King Curtis, Junior Walker, Sill Austin, Gato Barbieri. But, the player that inspires me the most is Dave Koz.

Over the past few years, many have noticed that you've gotten in great shape, in spite of the grueling tour schedule that you keep. Talk a little bit about how you stay healthy these days, and how important health and fitness have become to your daily routine.

I take my job as a rock and roll sax player very seriously. To do it the way that I must do it, I must be in good condition. The better shape you're in, the harder you can rock.

I think that I am very blessed and fortunate to have found my purpose in life and that purpose requires me to keep my body fit.

It is not a difficult thing to do. It's a matter of choosing what is most important to you in your life and putting that first. Once you have recognized your true purpose in life, this process becomes much easier.

I look forward to working out every day.

In a CNN interview last year, you mentioned plans for writing a cookbook. Did it ever come about, or are there still plans to release such a book? Does the Big Man actually do his own cooking?

Yes, I do my own cooking. I love it, and that makes me a pretty good cook. I am not a fancy chef. I like simple food prepared well. I like health-conscious cooking, but growing up in the South, I do love southern cooking; southern France, southern Italy, southern Spain. I love southern cooking.

My book is being held up by some unknown reason, but it will come out.

While we are waiting, a sample of what I like to do in the kitchen can be found in President Bill Clinton's cookbook that was just released. I am very proud to have two recipes published for the first time and in this manner. [Publisher's Note: For more information about The Clinton Presidential Center Cookbook, click on the "Clinton Store" link at]

Let's finish off with talking about your instrument. What type of saxophone is "Jerome," your primary horn, and how did you go about naming it?

First of all, let me start by saying I play a Keilwerth Saxophone and I did not name it Jerome. It chose the name itself. One day, the horn came to me and said. "I am very masculine, very sexy, very virile. I am Jerome." I said 'OK', and we have reached a higher level of understanding.

Do you practice and play every day when you're not working? At this point in your career, do you feel there are still new things to learn about your instrument, or do you feel that you have mastered it?

You never master it. When you get to a place where you think you know all you need to know, you are in a dangerous place. It's a dead-end street with no place to go.

At this point in my long career, I do not practice every day, but I do live my music every day. When I am preparing to go on tour, I do put in more time on the horn getting the chops up for what's to come.

Looking past the release of the new CD, what does 2004 hold for Clarence Clemons? Are there any new solo projects in the works, plans with the E Street Band, or other things that you're looking forward to?

2004 is going to be a big year for Clarence Clemons. I am very excited about going back into the studio and completing the new studio recording with the "Temple of Soul".

I am very happy with my script writing. There is a possibility that I may get one of them placed this year.

I have a couple of small movie roles coming up this year.

Then, there is always the possibility of that phone call from the Boss. Whatever happens, I'll be ready.

Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.