By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
He’d already soared into the music industry stratosphere alongside Bruce Springsteen when Clarence Clemons bumped into an old friend, the guy who helped get him his start in the Jersey Shore music scene, and asked if he could sit in, like old times, playing the saxophone.
The late-1970s encounter took place in Sea Bright, where Clemons had a home and was known for towing local kids around with fishing poles for some post-tour R&R.
And earlier this year, to celebrate his 69th birthday, Clemons bought a plane ticket for a longtime friend and former bandmate to fly down to Florida to sing at the party.
Clemons, who passed away Saturday from complications of a stroke, invested as much of himself in his friends and community as he did in his music, friends told redbankgreen in interviews this week, following the Big Man’s death.
“He liked to call himself the mayor of Sea Bright,” said Read Murphy, a former firefighter, denizen of the Jersey Shore music scene and current borough councilman. “He’d do stuff with the kids, like go fishing. He was a real good citizen and really in love with Sea Bright.”
Clemons owned an oceanside home on Village Road, according to Monmouth County records. And it was there he’d stay up into the early morning playing video games and keeping neighbors up.
The Big Man with the big sound, when he wasn’t blowing out heartstring-tugging solos or sharing a microphone with Bruce or on tour with his side project, Clarence Clemons and The Red Bank Rockers, was sure to pop up in local haunts, including his own, Big Man’s West, in Red Bank.
Norman Seldin, who helped Clemons break into the local music scene when he recruited him for his own band, Norman Seldin and the Joyful Noyze, recalls the time at Melody Corner in Sea Bright (now The Mad Hatter) in the late ’70s, after Clemons and the rest of the E Street Band skyrocketed to fame, that Clemons asked to sit in with Seldin, who was performing solo.
“They literally backed me up for about three months,” Seldin, 64, said. “We had lines going down to Fair Haven and Middletown trying to see us. It really rocked.”
In the early ’80s, when Big Man’s West was teeming with talent on Monmouth Street, Clemons, who was playing sax and touring with the Red Bank Rockers, made it a point to get back to Red Bank for a Sunday show whenever possible, his former soundman Tracey Dell said.
“We’d be in Reston, Virginia on Saturday, and Sunday we’d be at Big Man’s,” said Dell. “It was a pain in the ass, actually, but we did it. It was kind of like he wanted to do it for tradition.”
Those were heady days at Big Man’s West, when music filled the steamy space and neighbors made every effort to shut the place down, Dell said. And although the pay was next to nothing and the bar was losing money, Clemons was one sure to lift everybody’s spirits, he said.
“We all starved to death in that club,” Dell said. “With Clarence, there was usually a good story everywhere. He was a good story.”
J.T. Bowen, who knew Clemons when he was going to college in Maryland, said he owes his music career to Clemons.
Bowen was working the door at Big Man’s West when Clemons asked him to front his new band, the Red Bank Rockers.
“We went all over the world with that gang, but he was very loyal to Bruce,” Bowen said. “Bruce is no dummy now, he’s a smart man. He knew that, look, man, I got something here. He knew he had something and they stuck together.”
Bowen and Clemons did not.
The relationship fell off for about 25 years until Bowens’s daughter ran into Clemons last year and Bowen, who also suffered a stroke, picked up the phone one day to a familiar voice.
“The phone rings and it’s Clarence, and I’m like, praise the lord,” Bowen said. “He asked if I could still sing. He said he had something going on in January and asked me if I’d like to sing. Come to find out it was his 69th birthday party.”
As recounted in news reports all over the world since Clemons died, helping out his friends was never out of the question. Doing it with a smile, now burned into the memory of just about anybody who’s seen him on stage, was a trademark.
Around the time of Sringsteen’s 2002 album ‘The Rising,’ Dell bumped into Clemons in Asbury Park, nearly three decades since Big Man’s West closed for good.
“Clarence still remembered me, man. He was sitting and chatting and talking to me. I don’t even know if he remembered that he fired me,” Dell said. “But he hung out there, talking like a buddy. He really was a good guy. Clarence was the best.”