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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gee Whiz ... It's Christmas (Again!), Part 11

There are 43 tracks on my latest holiday compilation, Gee Whiz … It’s Christmas (Again!) and for the past couple of weeks I’ve been posting some additional bits and pieces of information about each of them, in turn. With just four tracks left to go, it’s time to share a few thoughts on Tracks 40 and 41. Both are by Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, who, until his death this past June at the age of 69, played saxophone in Bruce Springsteen’s fabled E Street Band. He was a gifted sax player, and his stirring solos on songs such as “Jungleland,” “Badlands,” and “Born to Run” helped create the E Street Band’s signature sound. But that was just one piece of the Big Man’s multifaceted role on E Street. He was also Bruce’s comic foil, protector and running mate. His room was where the party was. He had your back. And for nearly 40 years, he was a vital piece of the aspirational tableau Bruce has sought to create from the stage and through his music. Much has been written about Clarence’s unique contributions to the Springsteen mystique, both real and symbolic. I only met him once, and then only briefly, but Clarence’s death left me with a keen sense of personal loss. I’ve been a diehard Springsteen fan from the first night I saw him and the E Street Band at Boston’s Music Hall. In the many, many years that followed, I’ve probably seen them another 30 or 35 times, and each and every show was a thrilling, unique and life-affirming experience. Bruce recently announced that he’ll be touring again with the E Street Band in 2012, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. But it won’t be the same without the Big Man.

Track 41
The Christmas Song, by Clarence Clemons (1981)

Thirty years ago this Fall, Clarence entered the studio to record a couple of holiday tunes at the urging of producers Dennis Bourke and Jim Nuzzo. The first was an original tune of Bourke’s called “There’s Still Christmas,” and the second was an instrumental version of "The Christmas Song," which I selected for this year's CD. Originally intended for release as a holiday single in 1981, the two songs were not completed in time and subsequently shelved and forgotten – until this year. News of Clarence’s passing led Bourke and Nuzzo to dust off the old recordings, and they were marketed along with a slightly longer version of “The Christmas Song” as “a Clarence Clemons album.” Of course, three songs hardly constitute an album, especially when two of them are nearly identical versions of the same number. Nonetheless, I was excited by the prospect of hearing the Big Man performing something “new” for Christmas. Unfortunately, the resulting record fell short of my expectations. Clarence’s vocals on “There’s Still Christmas” are strong and emotive, but the production is flat and uninspired and the song itself strikes me as derivative and trite. Happily, the second number, Clarence’s instrumental version of “The Christmas Song,” works better.  Of course, it helps to have good material. Written by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells in July 1944 as a distraction from the heat, “The Christmas Song” is the most frequently performed holiday song of all time, according to BMI. While it’s been covered by a wide range of artists, it’s most closely identified with the great Nat King Cole, who recorded four separate versions of it from 1946 to 1961. Listening to this version, the song almost seems to have been tailor-made for the Big Man, whose saxophone seems to echo the beautiful voice we’ve grown so used to hearing whenever this song begins. 


Track 40
The Big Man’s First Saxophone, by Clarence Clemons (2010)

Clarence liked to tell the story of how he happened to take up the saxophone, partly, I’m sure, because it illustrates that there’s good to be found even in disappointing events. It seems that when Clarence was nine, he asked for a train set for Christmas, and he was told that if he was good, his wish would come true. Naturally, he was good as gold (or so he reported), and on Christmas morning he raced downstairs to open the package that was addressed to him. Upon opening the box, however, he became confused and disappointed. The train set had no wheels. That’s because it wasn’t a train at all, but rather ... his first saxophone. Naturally, he came to love that gift, and the rest, as they say, is history. I'd heard this story several times over the years, and I was thrilled this Fall to discover a video in which the Big Man recounted it just last December in an appearance with his friend Narada Michael Walden. There was just one problem. In this version of the story, Clarence got his facts wrong! He spoke of running to the tree believing there was "a saxophone" in the box (when he actually thought it was a train) and wondering "why the saxophone didn't have any wheels." I admit I did some selective editing on this clip before I included it in this year's compilation as Track 40. With the descriptive title I added, I think it works. What I couldn't edit out, of course, is the sadness that comes from hearing him speak of a 70th birthday that would never arrive. Not among us, anyway. Rest in peace, Big Man.

Here's the full clip of Clarence last December:



And here's one of Bruce's thousands of introductions for "the biggest man you'll ever know," Clarence Clemons (WARNING: It doesn't happen often, but Bruce uses the "F" word in this short clip):



And, finally, a beautiful farewell video by director Nick Mead. Don't miss the ending:


DO I HAVE TO SAY HIS NAME...? from James Roddy on Vimeo.

Just two more tracks to go. Have you finished your holiday shopping?

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