The Hero album cover shows Clarence Clemons as we’d probably like to imagine the late saxophonist in heaven—fists raised high and triumphant above the clouds. He's also wearing head-to-toe red leather, and it's less certain we'd picture that. Either way, Bruce Springsteen's close friend and longtime musical partner in the E Street Band did in fact step out into the spotlight as a solo artist 30 years ago.
Hero came out in 1985, at the arguable career peaks for both Springsteen and Clemons. The year before, Springsteen had released his album Born in the U.S.A., propelling him to stratospheric levels of mainstream success. Clemons, a central figure of Springsteen’s band, capitalized on that exposure with Hero and the hit single “You’re a Friend of Mine,” a collaboration with Jackson Browne. Clemons became a breakout figure in his own right. Three decades after the album’s release and four years after his unfortunate death via complications from a stroke, the 6’5” guy who Springsteen affectionately introduced onstage as “The Biggest Man You’ve Ever Seen” deserves to be remembered not only as Springsteen's most iconic band member but also as the guy behind some other ebulliently happy 80s hits.
Clemons and Springsteen first met in September 1971. A tenor saxophonist from Virginia, Clemons was playing in a band on the Jersey Shore when a bandmate urged him to check out another group playing nearby. In 1998, he described the scene to Mojo:
One night we were playing in Asbury Park. I'd heard The Bruce Springsteen Band was nearby at a club called The Student Prince and on a break between sets I walked over there. Onstage, Bruce used to tell different versions of this story, but I'm a Baptist, remember, so this is the truth. A rainy, windy night it was, and when I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band were on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway. And maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, "I want to play with your band," and he said, "Sure, you do anything you want."
The following July, Springsteen began recording what would be his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Clemons jammed with Springsteen often during the recording session breaks and even recorded parts on a few songs, solidifying their budding friendship. Clemons was eventually invited to join Springsteen’s E Street Band as they prepared to tour. Often standing just to Springsteen’s side onstage, Clemons’s commanding physical presence earned him the iconic nickname of “The Big Man” that stuck with him for the rest of his life.
Clemons was featured more prominently on Springsteen’s third album, 1975’s Born to Run, which became a critical and commercial success. His explosive sax work fills the middle of the title track—it’s probably best to listen to it while watching a montage of his various outfits. His rising presence as the band’s rock was also seen pretty clearly on the record’s album cover, which shows Springsteen literally leaning on his friend. On the fold-out, Clemons stares into the camera while wearing some devastatingly sweet leather pants.
Fast-forward to the mid-80s, and 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. had pushed the band to new heights. The video for lead single “Dancing in the Dark” showcases Clemons’s grinning visage at least once before he appears again for the soothing sax outro (if you can get past Springsteen’s creation of the most vicious snap-and-strut dance move known to man and the appearance of a 20-year old Courteney Cox). Even though Springsteen—and, by association, Clemons—was at the top, Clemons realized there was on more step: solo stardom.
Clemons released his 1985 pop album Hero at a time when the public consciousness surrounding The Big Man and the liberal dousing of saxophone in popular music were at an apex. Hero’s first single “You’re a Friend of Mine” made sure there was a lot more of that. The result of a partnership with Jackson Browne, who became friends with Clemons after they met during a show Browne did with Springsteen early in their careers, “You’re a Friend of Mine” is best enjoyed via its music video.
The song opens with a searing saxophone intro, making sure Clemons’s instrument takes the lead where it would otherwise be playing second fiddle to Springsteen. Browne’s then-girlfriend, actress Daryl Hannah, lounges on a couch; she takes turns painting a landscape and recording the duo with a VHS camcorder. She was involved in more ways than one: Those feathery female backing vocals on the chorus are in fact Hannah’s own. To add to the collaborative mayhem, songwriter Narada Michael Walden is playing drums in the clip, looking like he’s never frowned a day in his life. The whole thing is similar to the archetypal 80s buddy cop movie—if those buddy cops had decided to film a music video.
The song was a hit, reaching 18 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and its video will make you wish you had danced hand-in-hand with Clarence Clemons, just once. Browne described their relationship to Rolling Stone in 2011 after Clemons passed away:
He brought the E Street Band the power of friendship, redemptive love and inclusion. He did for one generation—well, several generations now—of American kids what Richard Pryor did. He broke down racial barriers and made it about inclusion. He performed that service just like Pryor did.
He was such a generous guy and he had this enormous smile. I remember going backstage to his dressing room at one of their shows and he called it the Temple of Love. Or maybe it was the Temple of Soul. I think it even said that on the door. There were incense and fabric and all these lights. It really WAS like a temple.
Doing "You're a Friend of Mine" was such a thrill for me to be asked. It probably wasn't a song that was appropriate to have Bruce on. Maybe that would've been too obvious. But I was happy to be on that record.
Clemons didn’t rest with just his own album and hit single with Browne, as he made a starring turn in Aretha Franklin’s same-year smash, “Freeway of Love.” In that video, Clemons looks like an absolute boss in a white suit and matching white sunglasses. One can gather that he looks like a star because was one in his own right. For the song’s solo, Clemons drops into some sort of saxophone power squat that would make any other, more mortal man’s legs explode into a cloud of dust.
Clemons’s solo work grabbed the attention of old fans used to seeing him in the context of his pal Springsteen and new fans alike. It’s a nice feeling knowing that, 30 years on, hit single “You’re a Friend of Mine” and his other music have motivated fans to do things like crafting saxophone-themed playlists and create earnest tribute videos. Clemons managed to transform a role that might have been limited to that of a brass session musician into something much, much larger. Whether you look at him as a legendary saxophone player, a trailblazing black musician or Bruce Springsteen’s (and Jackson Browne’s) close friend, The Big Man at least reached the top on his own terms.
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