The Big Man, Clarence Clemons, passed on Saturday due to complications from his recent stroke. He was 69. Saxophonist Clemons was perhaps the most essential member of the E Street Band, but his appearance on Lady Gaga’s latest single “Edge of Glory” is a potent reminder of the range of his body of work outside Bruce Springsteen collaborations. Here are his five best:
5. Ian Hunter, “All of the Good Ones Are Taken”
Clemons has a really great solo two-and-change minutes into the title track off Ian Hunter’s 1983 album All of the Good Ones Are Taken (though a stand-in appears in the music video). Without his performance, this Mott the Hoople member’s solo effort wouldn’t have had its single (especially since guitarist Mick Ronson only played on one song). This largely forgotten video used to get a lot of play on local and syndicated non-MTV video shows.
4. Lisa Stansfield, Swing: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Clemons’s sax work on this 1999 soundtrack (and in the film itself) was so good that someone claiming to be the film’s director Nick Mead commented on Amazon after the soundtrack was released to specifically highlight his work: “I’m the director of the film that this soundtrack is taken from. I’m biased about the music of course; Lisa and Ian did amazing work on it. What no one has mentioned is the phenomenal contribution from the very great Clarence Clemons; his sax stuff on this album is truly wonderful and quite unexpected.” The commenter may or may not be Mead, but he’s right. Above is a clip of the film’s “Mack the Knife.”
3. Joe Cocker, “Unchain My Heart”
Of course, Clemons is often called on to lend a brassy late-fifties-rock quality to tracks (not least with the E Street Band). Though his session performance on Twisted Sister‘s “Be Chrool To Your Scuel” is worth mentioning, his solo on this cover by Joe Cocker is one of his best showings in this style.
2. The Jim Carroll Band, “People Who Died”
Clemons doesn’t get a solo on this punk also-ran that became a minor hit in 1995 from the soundtrack to The Basketball Diaries, the film based on Jim Carroll’s life. But in retrospect, his harmonies behind the chorus are probably a large part of the reason this track ever charted at all. The sax is subtle but necessary in connecting the song to early rock & roll (as the best Ramones songs do) and adding melodic counterpoints.
1. Aretha Franklin, “Freeway of Love”
Clemons was highly sought after in the sax-crazed eighties pop world, working with producers from Jeff Lynne to Luther Vandross. His most fruitful collaboration, perhaps, was with drummer and producer Narada Michael Walden, responsible for Clemons’s duet with Jackson Browne, “You’re a Friend of Mine,” as well as this mega-jam from 1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who?.
Rest in peace, Big Man.