June 18, 2011 -- Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist whose raw, muscular sound helped define Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, died today of complications from a stroke he suffered on June 12. He was age 69.
Known as "The Big Man," Clemons was a fixture in Springsteen's legendary live concerts and the signature sound of so many of their songs.
The importance of Clemons' role in the band was underscored by Springsteen himself in the song "10th Avenue Freeze Out," in which the lyrics explain how the E Street Band found success when "the big man joined the band; from the coastline to the city, all the little critters raised their hand."
In on his website, Springsteen called Clemons "my great friend" and called his loss "immeasurable."
"Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage," Sprinsteen said.
"His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. 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."
The oldest member of the E Street Band had suffered several health ailments in recent years, including knee surgery that forced him to sometimes perform the band's marathon concerts from a stool and even, occasionally, a wheelchair.
Clemons had played with Springsteen since 1972. His stage presence with Springsteen had been a central feature of their concerts; his saxophone a defining element on such mega hits as "Thunder Road," "Badlands" and "Jungleland."
During concerts, Clemons always held a special spot in Springsteen's dramatic band introductions. Clemons was introduced "last but not least," Springsteen would say, coming even after Springsteen's own wife and band member, and receiving the loudest cheers from the audience.
A towering figure in contrast to the young Springsteen's lithe frame, the two were featured on the cover of the triple platinum, breakthrough album, "Born to Run." In addition to his saxophone, Clemons also provided background vocals, with a deep baritone probably most recognized as the voice of Santa Claus in Springsteen's version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."
When introducing Clemons in recent years, Springsteen would taunt the audience about Clemons, saying, "You want to be like him but you can't!"
Although Clemons was best known for his work with the E Street Band, as recently as last month he performed on the "American Idol" finale episode with Lady Gaga. Clemons also released several solo albums, including the hit single with Jackson Browne in the 1980s "You're a Friend of Mine" as well as Aretha Franklin's hit "Freeway of Love."
Though he grew up in Virginia and attended college in Maryland, Clemons became a fixture in the Jersey shore music scene where he and Springsteen first met. He pursued professional football before injuries from a car accident ended that dream and refocused his attention on music.
The E Street Band has had several personnel changes in four decades of music but Clemons was a constant. Guitarist Steven Van Zandt exited for a few years to pursue solo music but later returned, guitarist Nils Lofgren joined in the 1980s, along with vocalist, guitarist and now Springsteen wife Patti Scialfa. And Springsteen even walked away from the E Street Band for several years to perform with other musicians.
But Springsteen brought the E Street Band back together in 1999 and has been touring and releasing successful new records with the band ever since.
The E Street Band has performed without one of its longtime members, organist Danny Federici, since he died in 2008. But whether and how the band will perform without "The Big Man" is unknown. No touring or recording plans have been made public.