My first introduction to Clarence Clemons was probably the same as it was for most everybody. In 1975, Bruce Springsteen released his Born to Run album. On the cover, in black and white, was a portrait of black and white. There was the Boss, a somewhat ratty-looking Bruce Springsteen, holding his hot-rodded Fender Esquire guitar and leaning against a large, well-dressed man blowing into a saxophone.
As the Springsteen legend continued to grow throughout the 1970s, so did the legend of the Big Man. There was a special bond between Clarence and Bruce that many have seen and written about, most notably Clarence himself in his autobiography, Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales. Clarence said, “When I first met him, I didn't want to let go, and he didn't want to let go. It's like you finally found out what you were looking for all your life artistically, creatively... We just talked about ourselves, about what we wanted in life. The connection is still there. I love being with him. I love being around him.”
During the E Street Band’s legendary four-hour concerts, Clemons and Steve Van Zandt alternated their roles as Springsteen’s onstage foils. Still, when it came time for the Boss to introduce his bandmates, the biggest and best introduction ever in rock and roll was bestowed upon Clemons. Superlative upon superlative was always piled on: “The King of the World, the Big Kahuna, the Prince of the City, the Duke of Paducah, Master of the Universe — you want to be like him, but you can’t — do I have to say his name?” At which point, the crowds would be roaring their appreciation and love as the Big Man stepped forward into the spotlight. And that’s how I (and most of the rest of the world) knew Clarence Clemons.
It was sometime in the 1990s that I learned that Clarence had started hanging out in the Keys, mostly Islamorada. I first met him at a Seafood Festival during my term as Mayor of the City of Marathon. He was there jamming with Jen and Capt. Diego Cordova; I think I played that year, too. When we were introduced, and Clarence found out that I was the Mayor as well as a musician, I remember him saying, “You’re a musician and the mayor??? This is a cool town.”
Not long after, Clarence bought a house in Marathon. And a couple of years after our first meeting, the Big Man sat in with my band. It was a hot summer night at Dockside, and the word had gotten out around town because the place was packed. That night was one of the highlights of my musical life.
Our first set lasted an hour and a half. We did classic rock favorites and even some of my songs, and it was as if he’d been rehearsing with us forever. It was a little surreal to think that the guy playing saxophone right beside me was the same guy from the Born to Run album cover and all those classic songs, the most famous saxophone player in the world. At that time, my band did just one Springsteen song, and of course an audience member requested some Springsteen. “There’s no saxophone in ‘Hungry Heart,’” Clarence said after I called the song.
“Well, I always thought there should have been,” I said.
A big grin broke over Clarence’s face. “Me, too! Let’s do it the way it should have been done!” And we did. Ninety minutes after we started, dripping with sweat, we took a break. Clarence was immediately mobbed, and I watched with admiration as he talked to everybody who came up to see him.
About fifteen minutes into the break, Clarence waved me over to where he was holding court. He told me, “You guys are good, and that was fun. Would you mind if I played another set with you?” It didn’t take me very long to tell him he was welcome as long as he wanted to play. And I went home that night high as a kite over getting a compliment from a music legend.
After that night, I saw him a couple of other times — once with Bruce and the E Street Band in Miami, and again at the rally to save the Brass Monkey. I couldn’t get anywhere near him because everyone wanted to be around him. I thought I’d have another chance to jam with him or at least get him to autograph my copy of his autobiography. Unfortunately…
Even though he had endured multiple knee and back surgeries, Clarence was playing right up until the end. He played with Lady Gaga and appeared on American Idol. And he was supposed to have played the National Anthem for Game 2 of the NBA Finals, but a hand injury robbed us of the opportunity to see the Big Man on the Big Sports stage. Not long after, a stroke robbed us of ever seeing Clarence Clemons playing his saxophone again. The legacy he left behind will live forever, like Clarence himself, larger than life.
Rest in peace, Big Man. Thank you for 40 years — and one special night — of music.