You can picture Frank Sinatra having a private audience with the Pope, cavorting in Las Vegas and Palm Springs, or selling out Madison Square Garden. But you probably can’t imagine Sinatra poring over the dictionary.
Clarence Clemons, the larger-than-life tenor saxophone player with Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, relates that Old Blue Eyes did in fact break out his Webster’s to look up “hemi-powered drone.” Sinatra was planning to record “Born to Run,” but he was flummoxed by the lyrics. Springsteen is singing about a muscle car with a powerful engine, being driven by “drones,” young men who aren’t thinking, just grooving on their rides.
In his new book, “Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales” (Grand Central Publishing, $26.99, released Wednesday, October 21), Clemons and co-author Don Reo write about conversing with Sinatra in a chapter titled “The Legend of the Big Man Meeting the Chairman.” Over early morning drinks in Miami Beach, Sinatra announces that he’d like to record “Born to Run” — his way — and asks “What the (heck) is a hemi-powered drone? Why a drone? That word is very specific.”
The surrealistic incident gives the reader a sense of the characters who have crossed Clemons’ path. “I had to include my meeting with Sinatra, since he’s a Jersey boy. But can you imagine Sinatra singing ‘Born to Run’ in that Sinatra style?” he says in a phone interview from his hotel room in Manhattan, just hours before a Springsteen concert at Giants Stadium.
The Sinatra tale is just one in a series of bizarre conversations and encounters Clemons and Reo share in “Big Man,” the first book of its kind to be written by a member of the E-Street Band. (Drummer Max Weinberg wrote a book about drumming, according to Clemons).
“Big Man” is not your typical memoir, either. It has a mythic, funny, and outrageous quality to it and is filled with true, unknown stories from the E-Street Band. It also captures Clemons’ larger-than-life storyteller persona in a series of hybrid fact-and-fiction stories. The Big Man himself will be at Barnes and Noble in West Windsor, October 27, to sign the book. Clemons will just be coming off a string of Springsteen concerts bidding farewell to, first, Giants Stadium, then the venerable Spectrum in Philadelphia. “The wrecking ball is on its way and it’s so sad to see the destruction of all these old places, because there’s so much history,” Clemons says. “But it’s a sign of growth. These are some historic shows for us, though, because they are the last ones (at these venues).”
“Big Man” is a breezy page-turner, and you can almost hear Clemons sitting next to you telling these stories in his deep, gentle-giant voice and easy laugh. The book has its origins in the tales the guys in the band told to each other over the years — on the road, far from home, waiting in airports, or stuck on the highway. “I’ve spent more time in traffic than Steve Winwood,” Clemons writes. (Winwood is a founding member of the group Traffic.)
“I feel like I’ve been writing this book all my life, talking and telling stories, so one day Don (Reo) said, ‘let’s put it down on paper,’ and I just kept talking,” Clemons says. “I didn’t want to just tell stories about my life, so it’s not a true autobiography. I wanted it to be entertaining, so we accomplished this by mixing the tall tales with the true stories.”
From playing pool with Fidel Castro and the late “gonzo” author Hunter Thompson, to fishing with author Norman Mailer, or going to a Red Sox game with singer Annie Lennox (from the ‘80s duo Eurythmics), almost every chapter has a “did he really do that?” feeling to it. For example, did Groucho Marx randomly answer a pay phone Clemons called by mistake? “That was hilarious,” Clemons says. “His wife was shopping and he was standing outside the store, the phone rang and he picked it up. That’s the way he was, so spontaneous.
“It helps to exaggerate some of the stories, makes them come alive more,” he continues. “But hey, they’re all true.”
Born in January, 1942, in Norfolk, Virginia, Clemons is the son of Clarence Sr., who owned a fish market, and Thelma, a homemaker. He was originally immersed in gospel music, since at least one relative was a Southern Baptist preacher. Clemons first started playing music at age nine, when his parents gave him an alto sax for Christmas. Influenced by King Curtis and the Coasters, he eventually switched to tenor sax. He won two scholarships to Maryland State College (music and football) and played well enough to get some attention from the Cleveland Browns. However, a car accident ended any hopes for a career in sports, and he turned his attention to music, joining the Vibratones in the early ’60s. While still with the band, he moved north to Newark to play and record. Between 1962 and 1970, he also worked as a counselor for emotionally disturbed young men at the Jamesburg Training School for Boys.
Clemons met Springsteen in 1971 when he stopped into a club in Asbury Park to “hear this guy everyone was talking about.” It was literally a dark and stormy night and when Clemons opened the door, the wind blew it off the hinges. They played together for the first time that night, performing an early version of “Spirit in the Night.”
After their initial meeting, Springsteen and Clemons met up occasionally through music, and Springsteen would sometimes sit in with Norman Seldin and the Joyful Noyze, the band Clemons played in before he joined Springsteen’s band. In the summer of 1972 Springsteen was recording his first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park,” and decided to have Clemons play sax on a couple of songs. Clemons knew this was the band for him.
The Big Man has been married five times and has four children, and lives primarily in West Palm Beach, Florida.
The book is not all whoppers and grandiosity. Clemons writes thoughtfully about the disappointments in his youth — particularly with women — his physical pain (he has had multiple knee replacement surgeries, most recently in October, 2008), and his lifelong spiritual journey.
Meeting Springsteen was part of that spiritual growth, he believes, because it enabled him to make a living doing something that he passionately loves. Clemons also reflects that Springsteen is one of those rare friends he immediately connected with. “The night that we first played together, we looked in each others’ eyes and it was like, ‘wow, I found what I was looking for all my life,’” Clemons says.
While working on the song “Freeway of Love” with Aretha Franklin in the early 1980s, Clemons was introduced to spiritual advisor and guru Sri Chinmoy by drummer/ producer Narada Michael Walden. Chinmoy told the sax player that his purpose in life was to bring joy and light to the world.
“This is what I do, what my music does, and I’m very happy that I have been able to do this, because some people never realize what their true purpose is,” he says. “People have said to me, ‘your music opened a light to my heart,’ and this is so rewarding to me because I put everything into my music, my whole soul.”
The joy of playing music also supersedes the pain Clemons endures. A coterie of physical therapists and helpers get him prepared for the lengthy Springsteen shows, but then the music keeps him going.
“I love my job, and there’s so much pleasure getting out there,” Clemons says. “When I walk on the stage, I call it the healing floor. When Bruce counts out ‘one, two, three, four,’ all the pain goes away. And that’s why I can do what I do for as long as I have to do it. The mind is the strongest thing, stronger than any pain, but you have to believe and you have to be sincere. I am sincere when I go out on the stage, and I truly believe in what I’m doing.”
Author Event, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, 3535 US Route 1 South, West Windsor. Tuesday, October 27, 7 p.m. (The line starts at 5 p.m.) Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, author of “Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales,” a memoir by Bruce Springsteen’s saxophonist. 609-716-1570.