The tenor sax sound seems to be dismantling my car stereo as it drives Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway Of Love.” I’m straining against afternoon traffic to avoid being late for the 30 minutes management has set aside for me with Clarence Clemons, that same tenor sax player who is right now wreaking havoc on the small speakers in the dashboard.
With hard, soulful melodies driven by mighty gusts of sound, Clemons’ sax has become one of the most recognizable instruments in all of pop music. “That’s what I’m working for, to be a recognizable person,” he smiles as we sit down to talk between a photo session and final mixdowns of his new album, Hero. “Identity, my own signature — that’s where it’s happening.”
Thirteen years with Bruce Springsteen haven’t hurt The Big Man’s profile, a profile that may be evolving some with the release of his second 5010 record. Clemons says Hero, the majority of which was produced by Narada Michael Walden, is definitely different. “It’s more modern, a little more rock and roll, and I’m basically doing all the vocals,” he says. No doubt, Walden’s affinity for synthesizers, jangly rhythm guitars and popping bass give Clemons’ gravel voice a solid foundation and a funky lift.
On his first album, Rescue, the saxman left lead vocal chores to John Bowen, a friend from a pre-Boss band, The Vibratones. But here he’s up front all the way, with assistance from the likes of Jackson Browne (dueting on the album’s first single, the rousing “Friend Of Mine”), Darlene Love and Greg Thomas. “The world’s been waiting, The Big Man’s stepping out,” Clemons says, showing no outward signs of terror about the task. His natural voice is actually a lot like the one that comes through his horn, with the same sort of biting attack, distortion and distinction. “The more you do it the more comfortable you are with it, and I’m pretty comfortable with it now,” he says. Clemons has had vocal coaching with respected teachers in New York and Los Angeles, and he makes the most of his chance on Hero, belting out the title track and “Temptation” and emerging absolutely impressive on the ballad “Christina.”
“I enjoy my voice,” he says. “I’m not going to stop playing saxophone, but it’s a new facet opening up for me. I kind of look at the saxophone as an extension of myself. When I first started on sax l was a very aggressive kind of guy. A big guy — I played football and was very aggressive.”
Clemons played at Maryland East Shore University with running back Emerson Boozer, with the Newark Bears, and had tryouts with the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns before injuring a knee in a car accident and having to retire from the game. “I diverted all the energy into my music and my saxophone.”
The 6-foot-4—inch Clemons was living in Asbury Park, New Jersey, playing in an R&B group called Seldon’s Joyful Noise when he met Springsteen at a jam session. “I was looking for something, he was looking for something, and we were what each other was looking for,” the saxman says with a soft-but—sure voice. “And we saw this thing happening from the first night we met. We knew this would be it for us, and it has been.”
They didn’t start off with “Dancing ‘In The Dark,” though. That was a long time coming — nights driving until dawn to the next gig in an old Chevrolet -— you know the story. Clemons has had many years to add fuel to the fires of Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light,” “Born To Run,” “Jungleland,” “Rosalita,” “New York City Serenade,” “Night,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and others. The E Street Band has long been one of the hardest working in show business, and there doesn’t seem to be a bit of spark missing from that today. To Clemons it’s a matter of pride.
“It’s true sincerity,” he says. “You give 100 percent of what you’ve got to give, and that’s what makes things work. I wish that more people would think the same way about their jobs. The world would be a much better place if everybody would take as much pride in their jobs as this band. That’s what it is, pride in what you’re doing.”
The Springsteen Born In The USA tour has been spread out over a couple years —— this one’s a marathon to say the least, but the saxman is still having a good time. “As long as it’s still fun you can do it.” Before he had a wife Christina and son Christopher, word was his hotel room partied loudest and longest. Hero’s “Temptation” is a poke at such carnality as might have befallen Clemons in earlier times. “We all go through those days,” he says.
Clemons says he is now a vegetarian, and works out with other E Street Band members and the Boss in order to‘stay in shape for the rigorous Springsteen shows. Large callouses on his hands from belting a tamborine attest to the intensity with which Clemons approaches the gig. “If this band partied like some bands do, it would be impossible to be on the road so long and do the shows we do. It’s really wonderful to be on the road with a bunch of guys who are straight and who work hard at their craft. And it pays off in the long run.”
Clemons released Rescue in 1983, featuring the Red Bank Rockers, the band he formed in 1981 when opening a nightclub in Red Bank, New Jersey. The record’s high points included “Jump Start My Heart,” “A Woman’s Got The Power,” and tunes the saxman had a hand in composing, “Money To The Rescue,” “A Man In Love” and “Heartache #99.” Despite the talents of the Red Bank Rockers and, guest appearances by The Boss, guitarist Sid McGinnis, Desmond Child and Ellen Shipley, the record slipped by without great public response. Clemons still holds fond thoughts for it, and for good reason. “When you’re doing a solo effort you start with what you know best. So I went back to my roots, the things that really turned me on,” he says. “Then I started pulling into my own music, you know. From the known into the unknown.”
Doing the Hero album meant a lot of hours working on his composing, according to Clemons. It would seem that just being around a celebrated songwriter like Springsteen might be an inspiration for a composer. “Only thing is, he writes such great songs and when you sit down and try to write a song like he does it’s disheartening sometimes — it’s kind of a bummer,” the saxophonist confides. “He’s great as a friend to tell you what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing right,” he says of his boss. “I remember the first time I wrote songs and played them for him. He said, ’These songs are terrible.’ I was crushed, but it made me a better writer. I came back, wrote some sections, and hey, ok, now this is happening. Writing is something that, if you’re not born with it you’ve got to work at it. You’ve just got to keep writing and writing. And Bruce is such a natural, but he’s such a critical person, which is great. He might write six songs to get one song.”
As for his sax playing, the Big Man considers his sound to be a cross between King Curtis, Boots Randolph and Junior Walker. “If you put all three together you might come up with something that sounds like me,” he says. “One of my biggest thrills is to have someone come up to me and say, ’Man, I heard a saxophone on the radio today. I didn’t know the song, I didn’t know who it was by, but I knew it was you.’ That’s a great compliment.”
Clemons’ sax can be heard on albums by Joan Armatrading; Ian Hunter and Janis Ian, but Aretha’s “Freeway Of Love,” produced like Hero by Narada Michael Walden, gave Clemons his widest exposure yet outside the Springsteen band. The tune warmed the hearts of the public, and there’s no mistaking the gutty sound of that tenor. “To play on Aretha’s song is just like the ultimate,” the sax-man says. “You’re in the presence of royalty when you’re around her. Man, she is definitely the Queen. I liked the song so much, and enjoyed working with Narada so much.
“He’s a pure soul,” Clemons says of producer Walden, who has also worked in the studio lately with Whitney Houston, Phylis Hyman and Angela Bofill. “And that’s rare to find these days, somebody as pure as he is and as intelligent in his field. He’s a fantastic producer.”
Walden’s own formidable drum talents are in force on Hero, along with organist Booker T. Jones, ex-E Streeter David Sancious and Walter Afanasieff on keyboards, bassist Randy Jackson and guitarist Corrado Rustici. They discussed doing a tour once. “That would be some band, huh? I would love to go outwith this band,” Clemons smiles. “I think the world is ready for something like that. I mean, what else could I do as a follow-up for the E Street Band? I couldn’t give them any less than that, of course.”
Besides plotting his own musical course, Clemons says he plans to buy a house in northern California and raise a herd of buffaloes. No bull — buffalo. “Narada thinks I was a buffalo in my first incarnation,” Clemons laughs. “It’s strange I have such an affinity for buffaloes, but it’s such a majestic animal, stately and calm. Not to be messed with, you know what I mean? You look at him and leave him alone. It’s an animal who looks like he’s moving at 100 miles per hour and he’s standing still. You can see the destruction he could do if he was angered or crossed.
“They were the first thing ripped off in this country, the first animals exploited,” the Big Man says softly, now the enforcer, now the Hero. “I just want to help them. Pay them back. Let them hang out, let them walk around somewhere and do what they want to do.”