INTERVIEW: Saxophonist Jake Clemons balancing solo career with E Street Band legacy

Jake Clemons, E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen

Jake Clemons, courtesy.

Jake Clemons loves to connect with people.

A couple of years ago, he did a national tour of … living rooms, performing intimate shows in fans’ homes for as few as a couple dozen at a time.

This, after replacing his legendary late uncle, Clarence Clemons, as the saxophonist in the E Street Band and backing Bruce Springsteen in front of millions of fans at sold-out shows across the globe on a pair of tours.

Jake Clemons connected with fans again, putting them in a remixed video of his single, “We the People,” from his 2019 album, Eyes on the Horizon. The “We The People” video features individual videos of fans singing the chorus.”

Eyes on the Horizon is itself overtly political, including an appearance by honorary E Street Band member and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.

“I wrote ‘We The People’ because I am sick of all of the division and all of the hatred being spewed. I wanted to remind people that the ideas that our country was founded on were ones of moral commitments, pushing towards a more perfect union,” Clemons said.

The song took on additional meaning for him in late May when videos showed George Floyd slowly being killed by a Minneapolis officer who was pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck, setting off nationwide protests.

“This era has become more politicized as people become more aware of inequities that are in our culture,” Clemons said. “I found personally that it was a weird time for me, because, you know, the reality is, if you had darker skin, you just live in a different reality.”

But he was also buoyed by the wave of protests that roiled across the country following Floyd’s killing.

“It’s been an incredible time to be alive,” Clemons said. “And I think we’re seeing more diversity and, frankly a much stronger caucasian presence. Black Lives Matter is a cry that Black people have been crying out for a long time.”

Clemons, 40, writes, sings, plays multiple instruments and is currently learning the cello. He also carries a big legacy. His uncle, known as the Big Man, the Big Kahuna and what Springsteen shouted in concert, like “the king of the world, master of the universe,” was beloved to fans as much as the Boss himself.

But there remains a subtle and political legacy as well. It was Clarence Clemons who shared cover space on Springsteen’s breakthrough 1975 Born to Run album: a Black man with a white man leaning on his shoulder looking almost lovingly into his eyes.

To understand where Jake Clemons fits into those legacies as a political artist, one must look at both the social justice activism and racial history of the E Street Band.

Just prior to the making Born to Run, the band was a biracial split among three Black musicians, Clemons, drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter and keyboardist David Scanious; and three whites, Springsteen, bassist Garry W. Tallent and organist Danny Federici. The fusion of rock, R&B, soul and jazz was immediate. A taste of that sound can be heard in a bootleg recording of the band covering Fats Domino’s “Let the Four Winds Blow.”

Springsteen had already established his liberal politics, having played events against the Vietnam War since 1969.

Soon, Springsteen and Clarence Clemons ended performances of the song “Thunder Road” with Springsteen sliding across the stage into Clemons’ arms and the men sharing a deep kiss. They continued this into the 1980s at the height of Springsteen’s stardom.

“It was right as the AIDS pandemic had started taking off,” Jake Clemons said. “Sentiment against [it] was really strong. I don’t know if there was something that they did to necessarily rub people the wrong way or piss people off, but for whatever reason, it was important to them in the moment and really reflective of where the culture would hopefully end up.”

The political statements in Springsteen’s work held steady. In 2000, after four New York City police officers shot an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, he penned the song “41 Shots (American Skin).” Cops were not pleased. One police union leader called Springsteen a “fucking dirtbag.”

It was Clarence Clemons who sang the song’s opening verse in concert.

It all provided “an amazing foundation for me to grow up under,” Jake Clemons said.

Replacing his uncle, who died in 2011, for Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball tour in 2012 was “kind of like me stepping into the suit of Iron Man,” Clemons said. “It was hard for me to swallow the fact that Clarence wasn’t physically there.”

The younger Clemons was immediately embraced by Springsteen fans.

“There will always be Clemons in the E Street Band,” Springsteen had shouted in concert.

A worldwide fan base suddenly lay at Jake Clemons’ feet, and he was intent on keeping his solo career going. A friend convinced him to do so.

“I had to be two people. I had to carry the mantle that Clarence left me, and that I also had to be my own man,” he said. “I’ve kept my own solo career going, and every time I’ve gone out with E Street, it’s been a tremendous learning experience.”

Springsteen said the band will tour in 2022 behind his recent Letter to You album if the global pandemic has subsided. Clemons appearing with the band on Saturday Night Live last month was only a snippet of what’s to come. It made him realize how much he missed performing live, both solo and artist or as a member of a legendary rock band.

For now, Clemons wants fans to know: “I miss you. Hold out a little longer. We’re going to make some more beautiful things.

“There’s joy after suffering.”

Reporter Thomas Peele, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, first saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the legendary No Nukes shows in New York City in September 1979. Follow him at

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