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From the Devil’s Music to the Temple of Soul: An Interview with Clarence Clemons

DKR – As a child, what was the first music you heard that really moved you?

CC – The first music that really moved me was music of the church. I came from a Baptist family and my mother used to say that if I didn’t go to church I couldn’t go out all week so I had to go to church. But I really enjoyed the music, it got me going. My grandfather was a Baptist preacher who preached hellfire and brimstone. The preaching taught fear but the music taught me love. I watched my uncle Herbert when he played piano in the choir and the reaction of the people who sang. It was amazing and I wanted to play music to make people feel this joy. That’s what I wanted to do with my life.

Clarence Clemons, 2002, photo credit: Barbara Pyle.

DKR – How did gospel music influence your sound?

CC – Well there’s a purity to the gospel music. It comes from the soul. I look at the saxophone as an extension of myself and when it speaks it gives voice to my spirituality. I surrender to my saxophone and it becomes me. Music opens up avenues of feeling that you could never get to any other way.

DKR – Did your family approve of rock’n’roll?

CC – No, not in the beginning. They were always apprehensive of where I was going. When I was nine my father bought me an alto saxophone. I wanted an electric train but I finally did learn to love it. My uncle Herbert played piano and every Sunday we would all get together at my grandfather’s house before church. My grandfather had a big farm down the country where he was the preacher at the black church. Every Sunday we would sing devotions in the morning, and I really wanted to eat, but we had to go through this ritual. Then one day my uncle Herbert started playing these blues riffs on the piano while my grandfather was getting dressed. My grandfather came running in and said, “Don’t you ever play that in my house again.” My grandfather didn’t know what it was but he knew it was a sound he didn’t like in his house. There was something in those chords that made my grandfather upset and I wanted to know what it was. I wanted to know what it was that had the power to cause my grandfather to come running in with no shirt on. For my grandfather, rock’n’roll was devil’s music. I saw Elvis Presley on TV and what the music did to people, and I saw what church music did to people, and I saw a correlation between the two. My music is between gospel and rock’n’roll.

DKR – How did you first meet Bruce Springsteen?

CC – Bruce who? I was playing with a band called Norman Seldin and the Joyful Noise. There was a girl in the band named Karen Cassidy and she said there was a guy named Bruce and you two should be together. When you guys play together it will be a whole new thing for you and a whole new thing for him. Bruce was a guy in Asbury Park who believed in his own music. He didn’t play cover music. Most people wanted to hear covers, music they could sing along with, but Bruce wouldn’t do that and it was a struggle. His family left him, went out to California, but he believed in what he wanted to do and stuck with it.

I worked as a counselor at a home for emotionally disturbed boys for eight years and on the weekends my whole relief was to go out and play my horn. I’d put it in the car and go driving and wherever I heard music I’d stop and play. Finally I wound up in Asbury Park and I joined this black band from Iowa called the Vibratones. They did covers of James Brown and soul music and I took them to another level. Then I met Bluesman Willy. He was a little older than me and I played with him in Trenton New Jersey. I was struggling, finding my way, just like Bruce was on the other side of the tracks working with his early bands. One night I was driving along and the car broke down outside a club. I heard a band inside that was playing rock’n’roll covers that sounded pretty good. They were all white and Norman Seldin was a Jewish guy with a big Afro. Norman played keyboards and sang and they had a stand-up drummer. I asked if I could sit in and they said, “come on.” Norman hired me which was a trip, because in 1969 there were black bands and there were white bands but they didn’t mix. If you had a white band with a black member you couldn’t get a lot of jobs. Norman lost some jobs but he gained a lot more because the band became so hot with me in it. Finally one night I was playing in Asbury Park near where Bruce was playing. That night we were on a break and I decided to check Bruce out so I took my horn and walked down the street. It was raining and storming and the lightning was slashing. I opened the door to the club and the wind blew it right off its hinges. I was standing in the doorway, lightning flashing in the background, and the bartenders and bouncers were running down the street trying to catch the door. So there I was in the doorway and I said to Bruce, “I want to sit in.” Bruce said, “Anything you want.”

DKR – How would you describe the musical chemistry between you and Bruce Springsteen?

CC – It is a special energy that we create. Separately we are two strong, independent people but we really speak to each other musically. I enjoy what happens. We’ve been together so long now, that when he plays a new song and I hear it for the first time I can add my sound to it, he allows me that freedom. He knows how I play and sound and I guess he envisions what I’m going to sound like when he writes the music.

DKR – Sometimes on stage he almost seeks shelter in your body and kisses you.

CC – It’s like lovers. There’s some showmanship too, but we do love each other. In that euphoric state of playing, you experience a bliss that’s the best thing in the world. It’s rare that you get to that place and you couldn’t have it every day because it would be too much for you. When you share that energy it’s the best thing in the world.

DKR: What is your favorite record that you recorded with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band?

CC – I haven’t made that one yet but I’m looking forward to it

DKR – Had you done solo work before the breakup of the E Street Band?

CC – Yeah, my first album was in 1981. I had a club in New Jersey called Big Man’s West. It was one of my biggest mistakes but it wasn’t really a mistake. I had a party for two and a half years, invited all my friends, everybody had a good time, and I picked up the tab. That’s what my club was about. So if you were ever at my club you owe me! Out of that club came the Red Bank Rockers. The club was in Red Bank with a great stage, lights, and sound. I thought all I need now is a band, so I put a band together. The solo idea came about because of the club. So out of a negative experience came the positive one of a band and my solo career.

DKR – What was it like to play with Ringo and the All Starrs?

CC – It was great. It was such a collage of great musicians and great music. The camaraderie of being with those guys, hearing all their old stories, and travelling with the band was as much fun as being on stage with them. The band in 1989 was Rick Danko, Nils Lofgren, Billy Preston, Dr. John, Joe Walsh from the Eagles, Jim Keltner, Levon Helm, Ringo Starr, and myself. Everybody sang two of their own songs. I did a semi-rap version of Quarter to Three so you saw Ringo playing a rap song, I mean it was great. Me and Joe Walsh were getting funky, it was a blast.

DKR – You recorded the saxophone track on Freeway of Love with Aretha Franklin. Could you talk about that experience?

CC – That was one of the greatest experiences of my life. King Curtis, who recorded saxophone solos with Aretha, was one of the biggest influences on my life and my music. I admire so many things King Curtis had done with Aretha and just to be there with her was great. Narada Michael Walden who wrote and produced Freeway of Love called me up and asked if I would play on this album. I asked him how my name came up and when he presented it to the company they said he should find somebody to play the sax lines like Clarence Clemons, and why not call Clarence Clemons himself. Aretha is the Queen and God Save the Queen! I had to go to Detroit to make the video. It was during this period that Narada Michael Walden introduced me to Sri Chimnoy. The whole experience was a milestone for me because it changed my spiritual life.

DKR – How did the your new band Temple of Soul come into being?

CC – My dressing room on the Bruce tours is called the Temple of Soul. It’s like my cave because I spend so much time there. Corina and Michael Brevitz make my dressing room into a temple every night while I’m on the road. Wherever we play it always looks the same.

DKR – How would you describe the musicians of Temple of Soul?

CC – They are all very accomplished. Each one has his own band but we come together to make Temple of Soul. Each one is a star but there are no egos in my band. John Colby, my music director, and I are writing and I’m enjoying it more than ever. He’s a real catalyst for me and I appreciate having him in my life.

DKR – In Peacemaker you play a very personal music with Saxophone and percussion. Could you talk about that record and its meaning to you?

CC – To me its a very spiritual album. I thought of the earth as one piece of land, one rhythm. Then the ice age came and the rhythms broke apart, but all of them originate from the basic pulse of the heartbeat. I layed down a basic rhythm track and the drummers played around it. The saxophone music was about healing the rhythms and bringing them together. The song Miracle was about my father’s passage. My father suffered for a long time and the doctors couldn’t understand what was keeping him alive. I feel that he was afraid of death, he didn’t understand it, so the song is about an angel coming down and telling my father about death. The angel explained that death isn’t a hard thing, you just step into another room. Originally it was titled Birth of a Star because I always felt when you die your body goes back to this white light in the sky and you become a star. The song is a conversation between the flute and the saxophone as the angel and my father. My father finally accepts it and he becomes a star. Before he died one of the greatest things I’ve ever been able to do is share that song with him. I sat on my knees with him one night and I just played that record over and over again. The album wasn’t for the public but for myself, my family, and my father.

DKR – Could you talk about your new album Clarence Clemons Live from Asbury Park?

CC – My new album could be visualized as Park Avenue meets South Beach. The Latin influence is very prevalent in South Florida, where I live, and I still love rock’n’roll, the two meet up on this album. My musical journey through gospel, rock’n’roll, and Latin music has brought me to an understanding of myself. The day I turned sixty I looked in the mirror and realized the Temple of Soul.

Special thanks to Francine Hunter McGivern.

© Daniel Rothbart, 2002.

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