Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog — The Big Man’s Jerry Days

I was surprised at how deeply I was affected by the news a few weeks ago that Clarence Clemons had died unexpectedly of a stroke at 69. I knew he’d had health issues for a number of years, but those were mostly related to knees and hips; stuff that happens to plenty of us as we grow older. And the initial reports following his stroke on June 12 were encouraging. So hearing a few days later that he’d slipped away was almost as much a shock as the first stroke news.

I was already a rabid Bruce Springsteen fan by the time I first saw him and the E Street Band play live, Halloween night 1975 at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, on their first tour following the release of Born to Run. I must have listened to Side Two of The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (with “Incident on 57th Street” and “Rosalita”) 500 times in 1974 and the first half of ’75. I remember blasting “Rosalita” at top volume off the balcony of my rooming house on Frat Row in Berkeley day after day, eager to share my excitement about my new “find” with the preppy peons below. The summer of ’75, the song “Born to Run” was the unofficial theme song of a cross-country car odyssey a friend and I took—it was the one cool song that popped up on the radio in every city along the way. I thought it was the most exciting rock ’n’ roll song I’d ever heard. When the Born to Run album came out a few months later, it barely left my turntable for the next year. Even so, when I finally saw Springsteen and Clarence Clemons—the Big Man—that night on Oakland, it completely exceeded my sky-high expectations. I recall telling a Dead Head friend: “You know how amazing it is when the Dead play ‘Sugar Magnolia’ or ‘One More Saturday Night’ at the end of a show? Well, every song at the Springsteen show had that kind of intensity!” It was only a slight exaggeration.

This was the real deal, a serious adrenaline rush. And you had to love the Big Man. His onstage rapport with skinny little Bruce was so affectionate and often comical, yet when he’d stand there, throwing every ounce of his large frame into blowing hard on those monumental sax passages in “Jungleland” and “Thunder Road” or the honking buildups in “Spirit in the Night,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” “Born to Run” and “Rosalita,” it was like seeing the best of rock’s past and present coming together in an inexplicably triumphant alchemy. I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band a dozen or more times between ’75 and the Born in the USA tour in ’84-’85, and every show was pretty much off-the-charts amazing. They remain some of my most cherished concert memories. I get goosebumps even writing about it. After that commercial peak, Bruce went in other directions (Tunnel of Love) that de-emphasized Clarence’s role, and by 1989 the E Street Band had formally been dissolved. Bummer.

J.G. and the Big Man, 1989,
from a YouTube video

So imagine my surprise and delight when the Big Man shows up onstage at a JGB show at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco on March 3, 1989! I wasn’t even aware Jerry and Clarence knew each other! And what a good match that was. Jerry had already played extensively with jazzy reeds player Martin Fierro in Saunders-Garcia and The Legion of Mary (’74-’75), and with Ron Stallings in Reconstruction (’79), but Clarence was cut from a different cloth—more R&B than jazz—which suited the latter-day JGB approach and repertoire very well. Garcia seemed to have a great rapport with Clarence, always encouraging him to step out and solo, and smiling broadly when he did. Not that Clarence needed much prodding. He seemed right at home with the JGB, and because of the band’s loose format, he got plenty of chances to blow. It really was like dropping in a dollop of E Street Band magic.

Then, at the star-studded “In Concert Against Aids” benefit at Oakland Stadium on May 27, 1989, C.C. stepped onstage during the Grateful Dead’s headlining portion of the show and blasted through “Iko-Iko” in the middle of the first set and soared on a very spacey “Bird Song” (described at the time by Dead scribe Gary Lambert as “Junior Walker meets John Coltrane.”) He also joined them for the first half of the second set, which included a particularly sizzling “Fire on the Mountain,” and for a few songs at the end, including “Lovelight” and a sweet “Brokedown Palace.” I was sufficiently moved by the experience that I wrote an article about it for Charles Cross’ excellent Bruce Springsteen fanzine Backstreets.

To be candid, I was considerably less enthused by Clarence’s next appearance with the Dead, during their nationally televised Summer Solstice concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre (Mountain View, Calif.) 6/21/89. I see that in the Summer ’89 issue of The Golden Road, “Cranky Pants” Jackson wrote: “Clarence Clemons dropped by to add his sax to the Dead sound, and in a few spots—most notably on ‘Estimated,’ ‘Eyes’ (which received a big, stomping dancefloor treatment) and ‘Lovelight’—it gave the songs a fresh R&B feeling. That said, I didn’t like his sax cluttering up ‘Ship of Fools,’ ‘Morning Dew’ and a couple of others, and I’m afraid on a very basic level, he doesn’t understand how to jam with the Dead; it’s just alien to him. He sounds much more at home with the Garcia Band.” Whoa, harsh, BJ!

Later that summer, Clarence played seven shows with the JGB and once again the Big Man fit in beautifully. Since he died, I’ve been listening to those shows a lot, especially the three consecutive nights in Massachusetts—two at Great Woods in Mansfield (9/9-10/89) and one at the Centrum in Worcester (9/11/89). You expect a guy with such strong roots in Old School R&B and soul to excel on JGB staples such as “How Sweet It Is,” “Second That Emotion,” “Get Out of My Life Woman,” “Think” and “That’s What Love Will Make You Do.” But what blew me away hearing these shows again with fresh ears, is how nicely C.C. added to some of the ballads the band played—“Mississippi Moon,” “Like a Road,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” He also shined on a pair of reggae tunes—“The Harder They Come” and “Stop That Train”—and on some of the Hunter-Garcia numbers: “Cats Under the Stars,” “Run for the Roses,” “Mission in the Rain” and “Deal,” among them. Four of the shows Clarence played on during that tour ended with the potent combination of “Don’t Let Go” (really noisy, between Clarence’s squonkin’ and squealin’ and Jerry’s guitar cacophony on the jam) and an abbreviated “Lonesome and a Long Way From Home,” nicely arranged to highlight singers Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones.

Throughout the shows, Garcia, Melvin Seals and Clarence traded solos, and on a few songs you can hear instances when Jerry “answers” a hot sax solo with an even hotter guitar break. You can tell that these guys were egging each other on and diggin’ it! (If you listen closely between songs on the soundboard recordings, too, you can often hear Jerry and Clarence joking and laughing uproariously.)

Clarence played with the JGB for a couple of nights at the Warfield Theater at the beginning of December ’89 (12/2-3) and one night in 1990 (6/13, also at the Warfield), and then that was it for this fascinating union. (C.C. also played with the Dead on 12/6 and 12/27/89, and for a few songs with Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman at the Warfield on 5/12/90.)

Springsteen re-formed the E Street Band in 1999 — they were still awesome — and they toured on and off until Clarence’s death. It’s hard to imagine that group without him; those songs without him. (Now where I have heard that sentiment before?) It’s interesting to note that one of the Big Man’s final appearances was with Furthur this past spring—he sat in with them on “Little Red Rooster” and “Lovelight” during their April 6 show at Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Fla. (he lived in nearby Singer Island). Forever friends!

I suppose in the grand scheme of Clarence Clemons’ career, his JGB shows (and Grateful Dead appearances) are just a very minor blip, but some cool music came out of that brief period, and as we often say in the Dead world, “at least we have the tapes.”

Rest in peace, Big Man, and thanks for the memories!


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Joined: Jun 5 2007
What a show

I was at the Alpine '89 JGB show - Clarence played the whole show. Everyone had a blast, onstage & off. Farewell Big Man.

Joined: Aug 21 2007
to Marye

Once again, I concur wholeheartedly. Not having heard the song you mention, I still don't stand with dissing Bruce. I have a lot of respect for him and his music. Although I have never seen him perform and have not dug deep into his catalog, whenever his music wafts into my ears I enjoy it and appreciate the pictures he paints. Also, a friend of mine was showing me a concert video of him from '78 and lo and behold he can play a mean guitar solo! Never knew.

I was fortunate enough to see Clarence with Jerry at the Orpheum and the AIDS benefit (and didn't he play with the Dead at New Year's 88?). I remember thinking he fit in well with the JGB at the Orpheum.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
I haven't seen Bruce as many times as Blair...

and never before he was relatively big--definitely the Born in the USA tour, which was a stunner, and The River tour. And then, much later, the show he did at Pac Bell Park. My personal feeling is that while his style is not the same as Hunter's he is a Great American Poet too, and while I am a California girl and would not be at home in Jersey, I give the guy his due.

I recommend to your attention the version of 4th of July in Asbury Park from the Cleveland 78 show, which happened to be a live broadcast on KSAN (TERRIBLE reception that night) or I would never have heard it or been so thrilled to find it as a Japanese bootleg 30 years later. The version has never, as far as I know, been replicated, so it was probably somewhat extemporaneous. The original is pretty much your standard backdrop of Jersey boardwalk sleaze and let's get away before it's too late desperate with which Springsteen's work of the period is so fraught, but this is entirely transformed. "Sandy, that waitress I've been seeing has lost her desire for me" becomes "Sandy, the angels have lost their desire for us; spoke to one late last night, he said they won't set themselves on fire for us anymore"--and, against the implied backdrop of fireworks going off, he paints this whole picture of angels coming down from heaven on Harleys to hang out with them on the boardwalk in Jersey and that's not happening anymore so they might as well just bail. Makes me tear up thinking about it to this day--as far as I'm concerned, that particular version of the song should be in the anthology with Dover Beach. And as far as I know it never happened again. But you can buy it--on Amazon as I recall.

So I kinda don't hold with dissing Bruce, though I can see how one could dislike his style.

gratefaldean's picture
Joined: Jun 22 2007
I did see Springsteen

First time in summer 1978, the Darkness tour, almost a year to the day (and at the same venue) before my first Grateful Dead show. And to this day, I'll name that show as the single best concert that I've ever seen. My enduring memory of Clarence that night: during "Rosalita," Bruce was doing his manic running around thing on stage, suddenly stopped dead at his mic and said, "Someone stop me...before I hurt myself!" And keeled over backwards to the stage floor. At that moment, 3 girls rushed the stage and Clarence moved very cat-quick to stand over Bruce, guarding him while still wailing away at his sax, looming over Bruce while making sure that the stage rushers did no harm until security managed to kind of whisk the women away. Bruce "recovered" and he and Clarence exchanged a big-ass grin...I'll never forget the look that passed between them.

RIP Big Man. You and Jerry have some jamming to catch up on, for sure.

Captain Stormfield's picture
Joined: Nov 4 2007
Release a show...

Now, if we could just get the Garcia LLC to start releasing the Pure Jerry series again, maybe we could get a JGB/Big Man show. How about a compilation from the Mansfield shows? Or maybe the complete 9/10/89? It's sad to see that this series is defunct. It is/was one of my all-time faves...

uponscrutiny's picture
Joined: Jan 18 2010
I never saw...

Springsteen in concert. Never cared to. Although in 1989 I was more than pleased to see the Big Man on-stage with JGB at the Brendan Byrne Arena. Bobby also sat in with the band that night. Jerry when introducing the band referred to Clarence as the "Big Man" and Bobby as his "partner in crime". Definitely a good time had by all in attendance and one for the ages no doubt. I always wondered what Bruce thought about Clarence teaming up with Jerry and the Boys. He (Bruce) had at one time referred the the Dead as a "nostalgia act" and it would be safe to assume that he would be at the very least puzzled by the collaboration. A wise move by Clarence though to spread his wings and fly awhile. After all one can sing about girls and cars only for so long before it gets stale and uninspiring. Kudos to the Big Man and he is now once again with Jerry at the big Soulfest in the Sky.

scott1129's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
The Big Man and the Fat Man Rock

In 1989 we went with excitement to the Oakland Stadium for the AIDS Benefit.
Headlined by the Dead everything else is gravy, right.

Los Lobos to open
Joe Satriani
Tracy Chapman
And then the Return of John Fogerty
Steve Jordan Drums
Randy Jackson Bass
Bob Weir 2nd rhythm guitar
Jerry Garcia - 2nd lead guitar
and for the encore
The Big Man on Sax

Susie - Q!

The Sky Was Yellow And The Sun Was Blue
People Stopping Strangers Just To Shake Their Hand.

augustwest's picture
Joined: Jun 4 2007
The Big Man

I always regarded special guests as something of a mixed bag. Sometimes, a musician could really elevate things, bring a fresh voice, push the boys in new and different directions, add just a lot of plain old fun to the mix. More often, they seemed to hold things back, particularly on Jerry's end. It's a tribute, I suppose, to Jerry's generosity as a musician, but for the listener, well....

Shoreline with the Dead and CC in '89 is an example of the latter, and Mansfield (particularly 9/10) is a glorious example of the former.

Thanks for that CC!

stone jack baller's picture
Joined: Jun 8 2007

well done, Jax

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
In retrospect

I have to say that Concert Against AIDS needs to be revisited. I bet somewhere it's all on video...

Clarence really was a sweetie. He had a period of living in the Bay Area, and during one period of Silicon Valley affluence was roped into playing the Christmas party where a friend of mine worked. He put on a really fine show, of course. Not only that, Chris Isaak was playing the other stage. That was a Christmas party to remember...


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