Remembering Clarence Clemons: On Meeting "The Big Man" in "The Big House"

Perhaps you've heard, Clarence Clemons, "The Big Man" in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, passed away on Saturday, about a week after suffering a massive stroke, at the age of 69. It's hard to imagine him silent, both musically and verbally. He could really talk, in both ways.

When I met Clarence and Bruce Springsteen on December 7, 1972 -- in Sing Sing Prison -- I could not have imagined what was to come, for both of them.

Bruce had just been inked as a solo act by Columbia Records, another "new Dylan" (especially since John Hammond signed him), but quickly decided to hire a rocking band of Jerseyites, plus transplanted virginian Clemons. Clarence was huge and hugely friendly as I got to know him over the next few years, backstage at many a club gig and concert, in the studio and running around the Jersey shore. He was not only the big man in the group but the wild man, a party in motion, and with tales of having played with James Brown, no less. Unlike Brucie, he liked his weed and wine, and always flirted with my girlfriends. No harm, no foul.

Now, to Sing Sing, in a nutshell. For nearly all of the 1970s, I worked as the #2 editor at the legendary rock/political magazine Crawdaddy. One day in early December 1972, I got a call from a fast-talking chap named Mike Appel, inviting me to a promo gig for his client, someone named Bruce Springsteen. Actually, I knew the name somewhat because Billboard had reported that a kid had been signed by John Hammond at Columbia who just might be "the new Dylan" -- a claim that had doomed many before him. I had mentioned this in an item a few weeks earlier, spelling the kid's name "Springstein."

Anyway, the invite was modestly intriguing and then Mike mentioned that the gig was in ... Sing Sing Prison, an hour or so up the river from Manhattan. Well, I'd always wanted to step inside The Big House (as a visitor, anyway), and always had a weakness for those "new Dylans," so I accepted, as did my friend and top editor, Peter Knobler.

So we showed up on the morning of December 7, 1972, under an overpass of the West Side Highway and climbed into the band's van, where we learned that besides Peter and myself, not a single other member of the New York rock world had accepted the invite.

Off we went. Space prevents a full account of that amazing day at Sing Sing (you can watch my video about it here), but suffice to say, Clarence saved the day after the cons did not take a liking to folk-rocking Brucie at first. We thought they might even rush the stage, and not in a good way. But Bruce wisely pushed the Big Man out front and cycled into an epic 15-minute version of the Buddy MIles soul classic "Them Changes." The crowd settled in for a set of R&B with Clarence as the focus. An inmate even jumped on stage and instead of whipping out a shiv he took out a tiny sax -- and proceeded to jam with Clarence and Bruce.

That night I attended the band's first real New York gig at Kenny's Castaways. Bruce played solo for 20 minutes then said, "Let's bring up the band." Clarence blew the roof off. Then we got a test pressing of Greetings from Asbury Park. We were so knocked out -- a favorite moment was Clarence's solo on "Spirits in the Night" -- that Peter, with my help, produced a 10,000-word piece for our next issue titled, "Who is Bruce Springsteen and Why Are We Saying These Wonderful Things About Him?"

Later Crawdaddy produced the first cover story on the kid, and Bruce and Clarence remained buddies for years after. I fondly recall the day we challenged the E Streeters to a softball game in Jersey. They took the game seriously at that time and had bought the best equipment and shirts. Clarence, a former athlete who had tried out for a couple of pro footballs teams, or so he said, naturally was their slugger. Peter even managed Clarence for a while and the Big Man played his wedding.

Best wedding music ever. Thanks for that, and "Jungleland," all the laughs and all the rest, Big Man.

Greg Mitchell blogs daily at The Nation and has written a dozen books. His current books are "The Age of WikiLeaks" and "Bradley Manning."