ASBURY PARK — Scores of fans gathered Sunday at a legendary rock club to mourn the death and celebrate the life and music of saxophonist Clarence Clemons.
The Stone Pony in Asbury Park was the place where Clemons, Bruce Springsteen and other E Street band mates got their musical starts. It opened its doors to a crowd of about 150 people, many adorned in Springsteen T-shirts.
A makeshift vigil was created at the club late Saturday as word spread of Clemons’ death from complications of a stroke he had suffered about a week earlier at his home in Singer Island, Fla. By Sunday afternoon, the stage was adorned with Clemons photos.
Fans were lining up to snap pictures and leave flowers to honor Clemons. He was known as the Big Man, a nod to his physical size, stage presence and booming sax notes.
Within hours of Clemons’ death on Saturday night, fans slowly began stopping by the club, which was hosting an unrelated act catering to a younger crowd. Flowers, a candle and a handwritten sign saying “RIP Big Man” soon sprouted outside the building, and more items were added throughout the night and on Sunday.
Gary Mottola, who owns the Stone Pony, said Sunday that the E Street Band was “the soul of Asbury Park” and that Clemons was the soul of the band. Mottola said that when the city fell on hard times, it was the energy from the band’s performances that kept it alive.
Fans who attended the gathering had similar views, fondly recalling the impact Springsteen and Clemons had on their lives.
“One of our first dates was a Bruce concert,” said Cyndi Matts of Little Silver, recalling the night more than a quarter-century ago when she and her now-husband heard the band perform the song “Jungleland.”
“When he had that solo and everyone put their hands up — it still gives me chills,” Matts said.
Clemons’ raucous sax solos helped define the Jersey shore sound of the ’70s and ’80s, a genre that also included Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and occasionally, a young Jon Bon Jovi. He was a vital part of the E Street Band and loyally served for decades with Springsteen, whom he met in 1971 on the New Jersey bar band circuit.
“Clarence Clemons represented the soul and spirit of New Jersey,” Gov. Chris Christie, an avowed Springsteen fan, said in a statement. “His partnership with Bruce Springsteen and the rest of the E Street Band brought great pride to our state and joy to every fan of this music around the world. On a personal note, when I heard about the Big Man’s passing on Saturday night, I was struck with an overwhelming feeling that the days of my youth were now finally over. My condolences to Clarence’s family and all the members of the E Street Band.”
Kyle Brendle, the house promoter at the Stone Pony, said Springsteen and Clemons played routinely at the club in the 1970s — but usually as unannounced acts. He said the last time Clemons performed at the club was at a solo show in the summer of 2006.