NEW YORK (Reuters) - Saxophonist Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons knew his life would never be the same when he walked up to a New Jersey bar nearly 40 years ago and the door blew off its hinges and sailed into a storm-battered night.
As all eyes in the club darted toward the stranger making his ominous entrance into the bar, Clemons remembers the keyboard player saying, “Boss, a change is afoot.”
That “Boss” was a scruffy young guitarist named Bruce Springsteen, who asked Clemons to jam with the band. On that fateful night, one of rock’s most enduring relationships was formed.
In a new book released on Wednesday, Clemons recounts stories from his childhood in Norfolk, Virginia, and recollections of hard nights on the road with Springsteen before eventual superstardom.
“Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales,” written with Clemons’ long-time friend, television writer and producer Don Reo, also contains embellished tales and what Clemons called “outright lies” — including fictional fishing trips with Norman Mailer and hustling Cuba’s Fidel Castro at pool.
In an interview with Reuters, Clemons reminisced about that first gig with Springsteen.
“When I first walked on that stage and hit the first note, I saw things that are happening today, then,” he told Reuters. “I knew that he (Springsteen) was what I was looking for and I was what he was looking for to take that next step to the big time. It was just love, man, at first sight.”
In the decades since they first met, Clemons and the rest of Springsteen’s E Street Band have provided the rock-solid foundation and sound that helped “The Boss” sell tens of millions of records and play stadium-sized concerts worldwide.
Clemons’ soulful, brash style is as intrinsic to the band’s sound as Springsteen’s vocals and guitar. He says each member brings to Springsteen things he can get nowhere else.
“I think Bruce writes these songs knowing what the band has to offer him. It’s a very important role that we play in his music and I don’t think there’s any other band that do what we do, to illuminate and bring his music to reality.”
Clemons says he’s never forgotten how he felt when Springsteen called in the late 1980s to say he was breaking up the band and going in another direction. It would be a decade before Springsteen and the group would reunite for a tour.
“I was really, really hurt. I was angry. He tried other things, went with this other band, which is like seeing your wife with some other guy. I was very jealous, but I knew it would come back. And it did, stronger than it was,” he says.
Asked what he learned during the down time, Clemons says with a wide grin, “I found out how great the E Street Band is. The reality of a band that you can’t scoop aside, can’t put in a corner.”
Clemons says he’s aware that the U.S. black community has never truly embraced “white” rock music even though the genre has its roots in rhythm and blues, soul, jazz and gospel, mainstays of black culture.
“When I grew up, there was one music, rock ‘n’ roll. Somewhere along the line, there was a separation. I don’t know why it happened, but it did happen,” he said.
“My family came to a show and someone said, ‘How will I know who your family is?’ I said, ‘Any black person you see out there who doesn’t have a security jacket on, that’s my family.’”
But he holds out hope.
“The first time I ever saw a black audience at our concert, we were in Zimbabwe,” he said, recalling a 1988 tour sponsored by Amnesty International to raise human rights awareness.
“Everybody was black, from the people selling stuff to the audience,” he said. “Seeing people understanding the feeling that rock and roll has, it was just amazing and I just stood there and cried.”
Springsteen and his band have performed around the world since the “Reunion” tour of 1999-2000 and are scheduled to wrap up their latest tour next month in Buffalo, New York.
At 67, Clemons knows fans may wonder when the ride will be over. He has been plagued by knee and hip injuries and battles great pain just to get on stage. But like a lyric from a Springsteen song, he says the road goes on.
“There’s no end in sight for me,” he says confidently. “I’ve had some problems, which are being solved. When I walk on stage, it’s the ‘healing floor.’ No matter how bad I’m hurting, I get out there and do it.
“As long as God gives me breath, I will always be there.”
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst