clemons-big-mans-westClarence Clemons playing at Big Man’s West in Red Bank in an undated photo courtesy of Lewis Bloom Photo. The Monmouth Street space is now home to a gym. (Click to enlarge)

big-mans-westHe’s best known, of course, for his blaring, evocative saxophone solos as a member the E Street Band behind Bruce Springsteen.

But Clarence Clemons, who died of complications from a stroke at age 69 Saturday, also staked out a bit of turf as an impressario of sorts, right here in Red Bank.

Clemons’ club, Big Man’s West, at 129 Monmouth Street, managed to pack a lot of musical history into just a few years of operation in the early 1980s before it succumbed to financial pressures, says George McMorrow, a Red Bank business owner who managed the club through its final months.

mcmorrow-big-mans-west2Former Big Man’s West manager George McMorrow at the club, now Ultimate Physique. (Click to enlarge)

Joe Cocker, Richard Thompson, Bon Jovi, Bonnie Raitt, James Cotton and Roger McGuinn played there. Tony Bennett once showed up in a limo to catch a performance of his two sons, who had a rock band. And Springsteen, as he has throughout his career, would regularly pop up onstage with whomever was headlining.

After Big Man’s West closed, what had once been the expansive back room of a shot-and-beer joint served as the rehearsal space for Springsteen and his band’s seminal “Born in the USAtour.

But many lesser-knowns also played there, and that, too, was part of Clemons’ vision for the club, McMorrow told redbankgreen in an interview there Monday morning.

“Clarence believed in nurturing local bands, and he gave them a place here,” said McMorrow, who handled the club’s bookings. The stage, he said, featured state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, so even dirt-broke up-and-comers could be at their best.

Fifty-eight-year-old McMorrow, who owns Cinecall Soundtracks and Red Bank Film Factory, co-managed the place with Springsteen confidante Terry Magovern, who died in 2007.

Clemons was a regular presence at Big Man’s. His own band, the Red Bank Rockers, called the club home. But the garrulous Clemons was too much of a softie as a businessman to profitably run the place himself, and relied heavily on the hard-nosed Magovern to do so, McMorrow said.

Still, the club struggled with a tight economy, a drinking age that had recently been raised from 18 to 21, and fire-code issues. Clemons, who bought the property in 1981 for $215,000, sold it at a loss four years later, for $149,000, according to Monmouth County records. Scott Terhune, son of the buyers, now operates Ultimate Physique in the space.

In the interim were numerous nights on which fans could hang loose with the likes of Steve Van Zandt or Steve Forbert before or after a show, McMorrow said.

One that stands out: September 18, 1982. British rocker Dave Edmunds was booked, and expectations for a Springsteen appearance were high. “Everybody I ever knew in my life was begging me to get them in for that one,” McMorrow recalls, adding that the place got so packed that anyone who fainted from the heat wouldn’t have hit the floor.

Springstreen, did, in fact, play, engaging Edmunds and another guitarist an incandescent dueling-guitars medley of Chuck Berry tunes.

“It was jaws-on-the-floor stuff. Just amazing,” McMorrow said. “And that kind of thing was happening all the time.”

So what is the club’s legacy, given that it is so vastly overshadowed by the likes of the Stone Pony, the Fast Lane and other venues?

It gave musicians a place to do their thing, musicphiles a place to hear top-quality artists, and fans some indelible memories, McMorrow said.

“Magic was always happening here,” he said.