June 20, 2011


Goodbye, Big Man

Of all the people who worked on Lady Gaga's "The Edge of Glory," only two are visible in the video: Gaga herself (wearing clothing from Gianni Versace's final collection), and the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who's hanging out on the steps of the building where the video was shot, playing his two broad, brassy solos.

It's entirely possible that a lot of Gaga's fans may not know who Clemons was, or what his presence on the song means — not just "there's an acoustic horn soloing in the middle of a song whose instrumentation is otherwise electronics," but the particular associations of this particular musician. (Clemons, who also played on a few other tracks on Born This Way, died June 18 after suffering a stroke a week earlier.)

Over the past 40 years, Clemons played with a lot of people, but most famously with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. If you've heard a saxophone on one of their records, you've heard Clemons' particular sound: Springsteen nicknamed him "The Big Man." His most enduring feature with the group is the solo in "Jungleland"—there are a lot of fan videos of notable Clemons solos in that song. "To me, the sax is rock 'n' roll, even though electric guitars kind of pushed it aside for a while," Clemons said in an interview back in 1985. "I've felt that way since I heard King Curtis, way back on Coasters records."

King Curtis was a significant influence on Clemons' sound, and he isn't a terribly well-remembered name these days, but that's him playing on the original version of the Coasters' "Yakety Yak"—the solo that inspired Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax," a.k.a. the Benny Hill theme. In his time, he was one of the most prominent examples of the tradition of pop saxophonists as honkers, bar-walkers, crowd-pleasing wailers. Curtis had some hits under his own name, too: here's a live performance of "Soul Serenade," circa 1970.

Clemons, like Curtis, mostly built his niche as a sideman, charged with bringing hugeness and brightness to other people's records, strolling into the spotlight for a minute and then stepping away. (In the '70s and early '80s, he blew his horn on a wide array of projects, often with the E Street Band—see, for instance, Ronnie Spector's 1977 cover of Billy Joel's "Say Goodbye to Hollywood.") He turns up in all sorts of unexpected places, including the first lineup of Ringo Starr's All-Star Band, with whom he played and sang Gary U.S. Bonds' "Quarter to Three" on tour in 1989.

Almost uniquely for a musician in his position in the past few decades, though, Clemons also carved out a significant top-billed career for himself. His first solo album was 1983's Rescue, credited to Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers—one of the few examples of a band whose named member isn't its singer (that was J.T. Bowen, who tears it up on this live performance of "Rock 'n' Roll DJ"). Two years later, Clemons scored his one real hit single under his own name (mostly as a vocalist), a duet with Jackson Browne called "You're a Friend of Mine."

The writers behind "You're a Friend of Mine," Narada Michael Walden and Jeffrey Cohen, were also responsible for the biggest hit Clemons played on in 1985: Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love," on which he's a featured soloist.

(It's not surprising that King Curtis's band often backed up Franklin; here they are tearing it up on "Dr. Feelgood" in 1971, a few months before Curtis's death.)

Both "You're a Friend of Mine" and "Freeway of Love" sound very much like products of their era—particularly thanks to their synthesizer sound, which is dated just as much as the one on "The Edge of Glory," and has roughly the same effect of unabashed cheesiness. But "cheesy" is just another way of saying "deliberately unsubtle when subtlety is an option."

Deliberate unsubtlety, in fact, is exactly what Clarence Clemons specialized in. His playing was strutting, romantic, painted in big slashing strokes; it rarely held back when it could throw all its weight forward. That's the effect Lady Gaga's going for with every aspect of "The Edge of Glory," which is essentially a power ballad juiced up with a last-dance-of-the-night groove. Clemons' solos are the rock 'n' roll in the song, a living connection to a tradition that dance music has all but lost. Gaga got to celebrate his particular glory with him while he was still here.