ong before the sax, the solos, the Boss, Clarence Clemons simply wanted to smash mouths. He was a tough kid from Norfolk, Va., the son of a Baptist preacher. And as a college football star in Maryland, he dreamed of going pro. "That was gonna be my career," he says.
Back in the '60s, "we had to play both ways on the field, so I was offensive center and defensive end." The scholarship standout would protect his quarterback, then he'd turn to the visitors and "go beat 'em up." His signature move? "The forearm shiver."
"I'd stop 'em in their tracks," he says with a hepcat heh-heh-heh.
Clemons, who speaks in low, rapid-fire sentences, sums up his injury-riddled gridiron glory by saying, "God had other things for me to do." But in a way, God stayed with the plan just fine. After all, the 6-foot-4 Clarence is still protecting his quarterback, who just happens to be the 5-foot-10 Bruce Springsteen. And he's still slaying the visitors, who just happen to be us.
Tuesday at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, the 66-year-old Clemons and the venerable E Street Band will back their leader once more, a partnership now in its fourth decade. They're touring behind 2007 album Magic, resounding proof that the older, wiser collective can still kick out the grooves.
At some point during the gig, Springsteen will introduce his saxman with a rousing bit of bluster, teasing the crowd about "something essential, something important, something big." He might talk about how they met at an Asbury Park nightclub (that's the truth). Or about a supernatural occurrence, how Clemons appeared like Zeus with a horn (that's open for debate).
And if you're lucky, then Springsteen will sing those magic words, "and the Big Man joined the band," and the place will erupt. And Clemons will tear off an enormous solo, a triumphant blurt of freedom that sounds like a '69 Chevy with a 396 roaring out of a blue-collar town — and the crowd will erupt again.
All hail the Big Man.
"Everybody calls me Big Man," says Clemons, on the phone and on the way to another tour stop. Fans, friends, bandmates: He's the Big Man to every last one of them. And no, he never gets tired of it. "That's the life I chose. And that's part of my life."
Clemons has been hobbled by numerous injuries recently, including vision trouble, a bad hip and back troubles. So he'll spend great chunks of Tuesday night's show sitting on a "throne," a souped-up chair on the side of the stage. "I guess I've been elevated to that status now," he says of his royal accommodations. "I'm 66 now, and standing up for all night is really hard."
But rest assured, his presence alone offers great symbolism. After all, Springsteen on his own is good, even great. But Springsteen with the E Street Band is special, a symbiotic explosion of rock stamina. And if you think you get chills when the gang's all there, the Big Man gets them, too.
"The night before a show, I don't sleep," says Clemons. "Really. I've been doing this for 30 years, and the night before a show, I still don't sleep. Instead, I visualize the show. I visualize what I do before I do it. Visualizing makes me better."
Although the Boss has a reputation for being a control freak (at best) and a dictator (at worst), Clemons has nothing but praise for his employer. "Bruce is a great boss, an inspirational guy," he says. "He doesn't get p----ed off. We've never had that sort of hostility between us, ever. It's always been love and understanding."
Clemons has no say when it comes to the set list, but he definitely has his favorite songs and solos to play: "Of course, Jungleland. That's always the one people want to hear. . . . And Night is one of those songs I like to play, too."
Maybe he'll get to play those cuts, maybe he won't. "At this point (in our career), set lists are out the window. Wherever the audience is going, that's where Bruce will take them. During the show, he'll call for a song we haven't played in 20 years. And we'll do it. That's what makes the E Street band such an exciting thing. You gotta stay on your toes."
Clemons recently released a solo album, Brothers in Arms, with his band Temple of Soul. "It's like recess, you know?" he says of his solo output. "Remember recess? Right after lunch with Bruce, I have recess." He's also proud of his hit collaborations with Jackson Browne (You're a Friend of Mine) and Aretha Franklin (Freeway of Love).
But again, he knows there's nothing like the E Street experience. And that goes for Springsteen's solo outings as well. When the Boss leaves the Big Man behind — for instance, on 2006's rootsy Seeger Sessions — Clarence pays it very little mind. Does he listen at all?
"No," Clemons says sharply, then busts out laughing. "Listen, every man wants to seek out his own thing. But the E Street Band is something that's really real. That's it, you know? When Bruce first [went solo], I felt kind of weird about it. But he's earned the right to do whatever he wants to do." He pauses, then adds with a chuckle: "Plus it makes the E Street thing stronger when he comes back."
Clemons has "heard" that there's another E Street album ready for release. "You probably know more about that than I do. I don't get caught up in that." And as for the rumors that this is the last go-round with the gang, Clemons refuses to even discuss an E Street sunset. "I can't imagine us not doing it, you know?"
• • •
E Street organist Danny Federici, 58, died Thursday, after a three-year battle with melanoma. He was on leave from the group, but Clemons was hoping for his return. "I really miss him on my side of the stage," he said during the interview. "You can never replace your first love."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.