UMES MOURNS LOSS OF FOOTBALL ALUMNUS, NOTED ROCK STAR, 'BIG MAN' CLARENCE CLEMONS
June 21, 2011Philadelphia Tribune Story on Clemons
PRINCESS ANNE, Md. - Saxophonist Clarence Clemons, a University of Maryland Eastern Shore alumnus who became a legendary rock `n roll musician over the past four decades, died Saturday of complications from a stroke. He was 69.
Affectionately known to fans and admirers as the "Big Man," Clemons was hospitalized after becoming ill at his home in Florida June 12.
Born Jan. 11, 1942 in Norfolk, Va., Clemons came to Princess Anne in the early 1960s to study music and play football.
His passing triggered an outpouring of tributes across the globe in which news organizations reported on his death with lengthy obituaries accompanied by photos of him playing his tenor sax. Some published reports also featured pictures of him playing college football at his alma mater.
Clemons burst into the national conscientiousness in the 1970s as the charismatic saxophonist for the E Street Band, the group that backed up the renowned Bruce Springsteen.
The 1975 breakthrough album - Born to Run - featured Springsteen on the cover leaning on Clemons - an image of a black man and white man who shared a love of rock n' roll that would define their careers and their relationship for the rest of their lives.
On hearing of Clemons' death, Springsteen posted this reaction on his website: "We are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly 40 years," Springsteen wrote.
"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."
Clemons' impact on the E Street band was so significant, the song 'Tenth Avenue Freeze Out' includes the lyric: "When the change was made uptown/And the Big Man joined the band/From the coastline to the city/All the little pretties raise their hands."
He was scheduled to appear at a scholarship fund-raiser at UMES with other celebrities in March 2010, but had to cancel because he was still recovering from back surgery he underwent in January of that year. He rallied to return to his alma mater two months later and received an honorary degree at the annual spring graduation.
During that ceremony, he played a number on his ever-present saxophone, dedicating it to deceased alumni.
Clemons' father, who owned a fish market in the Tidewater area, gave him an alto saxophone as a Christmas present at age nine and he would carry it everywhere he went.
His grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher, he was exposed to gospel music so early on.
"I grew up with a very religious background," he told an interviewer. "I got into the soul music, but I wanted to rock. I was a rocker. I was a born rock 'n' roll sax player."
When he arrived at Maryland State College, as UMES was known in the mid-20th century, Clemons evolved into an imposing, energetic presence on the football team as well as on the local club scene, where he was known to play his sax.
In a February 2011 article published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, college teammates Emerson Boozer and Earl Christy spoke fondly of Clemons as a strong, aggressive player.
"He had a lot of desire," Christy told the newspaper, "He had a desire second to none. When he brought it, he brought it every play."
Maryland State was known for producing athletes who would go on to successful professional football careers. At 6-feet 4-inches and over 250 pounds - hence the playful moniker Springsteen eventually bestowed on him - Clemons harbored those dreams as well.
During his time at UMES, then Maryland State College, Clemons, was a two-way player, the center on offense and a defensive end. He was team captain during his senior season in 1963.
Marshall J. Cropper, director of the UMES Golf Academy and organizer of the Art Shell Golf Tournament, was a sophomore at Maryland State during the 1963-64 school year, when Clemons was a senior.
"He was a senior leader," said Cropper in an interview with The Daily Times. "And he always enjoyed music."
Clemons and his friends played music in the dormitory and in the community and knew how to draw a crowd, he said.
"I think we all got a lot of pleasure seeing him be successful at music," Cropper said. "He was good enough to play pro ball, I know that."
He played semi-pro football in New Jersey for two years, the Plain Dealer reported, and was set to try out for the Cleveland Browns when he was injured in a near-fatal single-car accident.
When he recovered, Clemons decided to stick with playing music and eventually encountered Springsteen on the Jersey Shore where the two played music in local nightclubs. The pairing made them both entertainment icons.
Playing at Super Bowl XLIII was in part a dream come true for Clemons, who long before had different visions of the big game. 'I finally made it to the Super Bowl,' Clemons told the Cleveland Plain Dealer earlier this year. 'Maybe if I had made [the Browns], I might have taken them there, I don't know.'
In addition to his career with the E Street Band, he also performed solo and with a diverse group of other artists, including Aretha Franklin, Jackson Browne, Roy Orbison, Ringo Starr and most recently, Lady Gaga.
In 2009, he put out an autobiography, "Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales." He is survived by his wife, Victoria, and four sons: Clarence Jr., Charles, Jarod, and Christopher.
Story appears with compliments to Bill Robinson, UMES Public Relations.