June 19, 2011— -- Music fans today are remembering Clarence Clemons, the powerhouse who helped catapult Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to the rock and roll Hall of Fame.
The saxophonist died Saturday of complications from a stroke he suffered on June 12. He was age 69.
Known to his fans as "The Big Man" for his towering 6-foot-5 frame and his mighty tenor sax riffs, Clemons was the rhythm and soul of the E Street Band and a fixture in Springsteen's legendary live concerts and the signature sound of so many of the band's songs.
He grew up in Norfolk, Va., and attended Maryland State College on both a football and music scholarship but music quickly won out.
Before graduating he moved to Newark, N.J., where the myth that became the premiere American rock band of the 1970s began.
"Bruce and Clarence had this special bond, anyone in the E Street Band would tell you that, but really it was onstage where it really turned to magic," said Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
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 pretties raised their hand."
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, and collaborated with other stars, including the hit single with Jackson Browne in the 1980s "You're a Friend of Mine" and Aretha Franklin's hit "Freeway of Love."