NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — “Immeasurable” is how Bruce Springsteen is describing the loss of his longtime saxophone player and friend Clarence Clemons.
The musician known as The Big Man for the E Street Band died Saturday night, six days after suffering a stroke at his Florida home.
“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,” Springsteen said in a statement.
Clemons played alongside Springsteen for four decades.
He was known as the Big Man for his imposing 6-foot-5-inch, 270-plus pound frame and his ever-present saxophone spent much of his life with The Boss, and his booming saxophone solos became a signature sound for the E Street Band on many key songs, including “Jungleland,” a triumphant solo he spent 16 hours perfecting, and “Born To Run.”
In recent years, Clemons had been slowed by health woes. He endured major spinal surgery in January 2010 and, at the 2009 Super Bowl, Clemons rose from a wheelchair to perform with Springsteen after double knee replacement surgery.
But his health seemed to be improving. In May, he performed with Lady Gaga on the season finale of “American Idol,” and performed on two songs on her “Born This Way” album.
An original member and the oldest member of the E Street Band, Clemons also performed with the Grateful Dead, the Jerry Garcia Band, and Ringo Starr’s All Star Band. He recorded with a wide range of artists including Aretha Franklin, Roy Orbison and Jackson Browne. He also had his own band called the Temple of Soul.
The stage “always feels like home. It’s where I belong,” Clemons, a former youth counselor, said after performing at a Hard Rock Cafe benefit for Home Safe, a children’s charity, in 2010.
Born in Norfolk, Va., Clemons was the grandson of a Baptist minister and began playing the saxophone when he was 9.
He was influenced by R&B artists such as King Curtis and Junior Walker. But his dreams originally focused on football. He played for Maryland State College, and was to try out for the Cleveland Browns when he got in a bad car accident that made him retire from the sport for good.
His energies then focused on music.
In 1971, Clemons was playing with Norman Seldin & the Joyful Noise when he heard about rising singer-songwriter named Springsteen, who was from New Jersey. The two hit it off immediately and Clemons officially joined the E Street Band in 1973 with the release of the debut album “Greetings from Asbury Park.”
Clemons emerged as one of the most critical members of the E Street Band for different reasons. His burly frame would have been intimidating if not for his bright smile and endearing personality that charmed fans.
“It’s because of my innocence,” he said in a 2003 AP interview. “I have no agenda, just to be loved. Somebody said to me, ‘Whenever somebody says your name, a smile comes to their face.’ That’s a great accolade. I strive to keep it that way.”
But it was his musical contributions on tenor sax that would come to define the E Street Band sound.
Clemons continued to perform with the band for the next 12 years, contributing his big, distinctive big sound to the albums, “The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle,” “Born to Run,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town, “The River” and “Born in the USA.” But four years after Springsteen experienced the blockbuster success of “Born in the USA” and toured with his group, he decided to disband the E Street Band.
During the breaks, Clemons continued with solo projects, including a 1985 vocal duet with Browne on the single “You’re a Friend of Mine” and saxophone work on Franklin’s 1985 hit single “Freeway of Love.” He released his own albums, toured, and even sang on some songs.
Clemons also made several television and movie appearances over the years, including Martin Scorsese’s 1977 musical, “New York, New York, in which he played a trumpet player.
The break with Springsteen and the E Street Band didn’t end his relationship with either Springsteen or the rest of the band members, nor would it turn out to be permanent. By 1999 they were back together for a reunion tour and the release of “The Rising.”
One of his last performances came just two months ago when he played the National Anthem at the Mets-Marlins opening day game in Miami.
He is the second member of the E Street Band to pass away: In 2008, Danny Federici, the keyboardist for the band, died at age 58 of melanoma.
Fans are set to gather Sunday to remember Clemons at the Stone Pony, the Jersey shore club where the band made its mark.
Clarence Clemons was 69.
(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)