Clarence Clemons spent most of his career in the awkward position of having been the key to a musical idea that Bruce Springsteen lost interest in early on.
Clemons, who died on Saturday at the age of 69 after having suffered a stroke last week, was the heart of the great horn section that played on 1973’s “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.” It was unlike any album Springsteen made before or after — an amalgam of rock, folk, soul and Latin music played by a first-rate band with lots of room for stretching out and soloing.
This early version of the E Street Band featured two black musicians — Clemons and keyboard player David Sancious — and a drummer, Vini Lopez, who was fired after a fight with the brother of Springsteen’s manager, but who on “The E Street Shuffle” plays with a wonderfully loose, propulsive feel that is the opposite of Max Weinberg’s hard-rock pounding. It may or may not have been Springsteen’s best album. I do think it’s the greatest summer album ever.
But Springsteen decided to go the rock-god route, although he continued to grow as a songwriter and, especially, as a lyricist. His next album, the elaborate, rococo “Born to Run” (1975), carved out large spaces for Clemons, especially on “Jungleland.” But “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (1978) is a traditional hard-rock album, with scarcely any room for Clemons at all. For the most part, Springsteen has stuck with a spare, stripped-down approach ever since.
What to do? Clemons and Springsteen were friends, and Clemons was the biggest draw at the live shows other than Springsteen himself. The solution was to keep him, let him play percussion and sing back-up, and of course play sax on the old songs — as well as on the occasional newer songs Springsteen would write to give Clemons something to do other than bang a cowbell.
It was a workable and honorable solution. But I always thought it was too bad that Springsteen abandoned his original (in more ways than one) idea of having an integrated band play integrated music in favor of becoming just another white rocker — albeit the best in the world for a time — with a black foil/sidekick on stage.
Tuesday is the first day of summer. Sparks fly on E Street, and I know what I’ll be playing in my car that day. God bless you, Clarence Clemons.
Photo (cc) by Martin Olbrich and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.