Born in Norfolk County (later the city of Chesapeake), Virginia, Clemons was the son of Clarence Clemons, Sr., a fish market owner, and his wife Thelma. He was the oldest of their three children. His grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher and, as a result, the young Clemons grew up listening to gospel music. When he was nine, his father gave him an alto saxophone as a Christmas present and paid for music lessons. He later switched to baritone saxophone and played in a high school jazz band. His uncle also influenced his early musical development when he bought him his first King Curtis album. Curtis, and his work with The Coasters in particular, would be become a major influence on Clemons and led to him switching to tenor saxophone. As a youth Clemons also showed potential as a football player, and graduated from Crestwood High School (now Crestwood Middle) before attending Maryland State College on both music and football scholarships. He played as a lineman on the same team as Emerson Boozer and attracted the attention of the Cleveland Browns, who offered him a trial. However, the day before, he was involved in a serious car accident which effectively ended any plans of a career in the NFL. At age 18, Clemons had one of his earliest studio experiences, recording sessions with Tyrone Ashley's Funky Music Machine, a band from Plainfield, New Jersey that included Ray Davis, Eddie Hazel and Billy Bass Nelson, all of whom later played with Parliament-Funkadelic. He also performed with Daniel Petraitis, a New Jersey and Nashville legend. These sessions were eventually released in 2007, by Truth and Soul Records as Let Me Be Your Man. While at Maryland State College Clemons also joined his first band, The Vibratones, which played James Brown covers and stayed together for about four years between 1961 and 1965. While still playing with this band he moved to Newark, New Jersey where he worked as a counselor for emotionally disturbed children at the Jamesburg Training School for Boys between 1962 and 1970.
The story of how Clemons first met Bruce Springsteen has entered into E Street Band mythology. "The E Street Shuffle" with a monologue about how they met and the event was also immortalized in "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out". They allegedly met for the first time in September 1971. At the time Clemons was playing with Norman Seldin & The Joyful Noyze at The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Seldin was a Jersey Shore musician/entrepreneur who, as well as playing piano and leading various bands, had his own record label, Selsom Records. In 1969, Clemons had recorded an eponymous album with this band. In 2008, tracks from this album were reissued on an anthology, Asbury Park — Then And Now, put together by Seldin. It was Karen Cassidy, lead vocalist with The Joyful Noyze, who encouraged Clemons to check out Springsteen who was playing with The Bruce Springsteen Band at the nearby Student Prince.
Well before this meeting, however, Clemons and Springsteen had moved within the same circle of musical acquaintances. Norman Seldin had managed and promoted several local bands, including The Motifs who featured Vinnie Roslin, later to play with Springsteen in Steel Mill. On April 22, 1966, Seldin had also organised a battle of the bands competition at the Matawan-Keyport Roller Drome in Matawan, New Jersey. Springsteen was among the entrants playing with his then band, The Castiles. Billy Ryan, who played lead guitar with The Joyful Noyze, also played in The Jaywalkers with Garry Tallent and Steve Van Zandt and Clemons himself had played with Tallent in Little Melvin & The Invaders.
In July 1972, Springsteen began recording his debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and during breaks from recording, he jammed with Clemons and The Joyful Noyze on at least two occasions at The Shipbottom Lounge in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. When Springsteen then decided to use a tenor saxophone on the songs "Blinded by the Light" and "Spirit in the Night," it was Clemons he called. By October Springsteen was ready to tour and promote Greetings… and he put together a band featuring Clemons, Tallent, Danny Federici and Vini Lopez. Clemons played his last gig with Norman Seldin & The Joyful Noyze at the Club Plaza in Bayville, New Jersey on October 21, 1972. Four days later Clemons made his debut with the formative E Street Band at an unadvertised, impromptu performance at The Shipbottom Lounge. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Clemons featured prominently on Springsteen albums. On Born to Run he provided memorable saxophone solos on the title track, "Thunder Road" and "Jungleland" while Darkness on the Edge of Town featured another notable solo on "Badlands". The River saw Clemons feature on songs such as "The Ties That Bind", "Sherry Darling", "I Wanna Marry You", "Drive All Night" and "Independence Day" while Born in the U.S.A. saw solos on "Bobby Jean" and "I'm Goin' Down".
At the end of shows, while recognizing members of the E Street Band, Springsteen referred to Clemons as "The Biggest Man You Ever Seen". He sometimes changed this depending on where the E Street Band performs — at their 2009 concert in Glasgow he introduced Clemons as "the biggest Scotsman you've ever seen".
Clemons' final recordings with Springsteen and the E Street Band will be featured on Springsteen's 2012 album, Wrecking Ball.
Outside of his work with the E Street Band, Clemons recorded with many other artists and had a number of musical projects on his own. The best known of these are his 1985 vocal duet with Jackson Browne on the Top-20 hit single "You're a Friend of Mine", and his saxophone work on Aretha Franklin's 1985 Top-10 hit single "Freeway of Love". He was managed briefly in the 1980s by former Crawdaddy editor Peter Knobler, whose wedding Clemons played with his band, Clarence Clemons & the Red Bank Rockers. During the 1980s Clemons also owned a Red Bank, New Jersey nightclub called Big Man's West. He toured in the first incarnation of Ringo Starr & The All-Starr Band in 1989, singing "You're a Friend of Mine" (dueting with Billy Preston) and an updated rap arrangement of "Quarter to Three." In the mid-1990s, he recorded a Japan-only CD release called Aja and the Big Man "Get It On" with Los Angeles singer/songwriter Aja Kim. In the 2000s, Clemons along with producer Narada Michael Walden, put together a group called The Temple of Soul, releasing a single called 'Anna'. He also recorded with philanthropic teen band Creation. Clemons collaborated with Lady Gaga on the songs "Hair" and "The Edge of Glory" from her album Born This Way, providing a saxophone track and solo. Clarence Clemons occasionally sat in with the Grateful Dead and as recently as April 2011, sat in on several tunes with the Grateful Dead "spinoff" band Furthur during a concert in Boca Raton Florida. Just days before he suffered a major stroke, he shot a music video with Lady Gaga for "The Edge of Glory".
Clemons suffered a stroke on June 12, 2011. He underwent two surgeries after which he was declared in serious but stable condition. According to Rolling Stone magazine, he had been showing signs of recovery. However, Clemons died from complications caused by the stroke on June 18, 2011.
Bruce Springsteen said of Clarence Clemons: "Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner, and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.
Various artists reacted on stage to the death of Clarence.
At their concert in Portsmouth, Virginia on Sunday, June 19, 2011, Phish covered Thunder Road as a tribute to Clemons.
At an Eddie Vedder concert in Hartford, Connecticut on Saturday, June 18, 2011, Vedder played tribute to Clarence during Pearl Jam song Better Man. Eddie wished Clemons well, and shortly thereafter was notified by a sound tech that he had died. During a subsequent performance on The Late Show with David Letterman, Vedder played a ukulele with "Clarence" written across the front of it.
Before singing Moment of Surrender at the U2 concert in Anaheim on Saturday, June 18, 2011, Bono paid tribute to Clarence Clemons, who had died earlier that day. Bono read lyrics from Springsteen's Jungleland near the end of the song, and he repeated them at the song's conclusion. Bono repeated this dedication and tribute during Moment of Surrender at the U2 concert in Baltimore on Wednesday, June 22, 2011.
New Jersey rock band Bon Jovi performed Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out as the first encore during their concert in Horsens, Denmark on June 19, 2011. While playing that song photos of Clarence were shown on the giant video screen behind the band.
Jimmy Buffett added verses that included Clarence in "The Stories We Can Tell" during his final encore during his concert in June 21, 2011. The rest of the band left the stage and it was Buffett playing and singing alone.
During their set at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival, Brian Fallon, lead singer of the New Jersey rock band, The Gaslight Anthem dedicated their song, The '59 Sound to Clemons' memory.
During Southside Johnny's annual July 4 weekend concert at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ he and Miami Steve spoke of Clemons. Afterwards, Eddie Manion played Clemons' famous Jungleland solo while a projector screened showed images of the Big Man.
On July 17, 2011, a tribute concert was held at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, NJ. Bruce Springsteen performed a 45 minute set playing some of Clarence's songs. Clarence's son (Clarence III), who goes by Nick, opened the show with his band, The Nick Clemons Band.
On October 1, 2011, a major, first-class tribute to Clemons took place at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla. Traditionally an annual charity event hosted by Clemons, called The Classic Rock & Roll Party, the event paid tribute to Clemons' life and all he did for Home Safe, a non-profit organization helping victims of child abuse and domestic violence.
In January 2012, Clemons' hometown of Norfolk, Virginia will pay tribute with memorial concerts, featuring members of the E Street Band. The concert will take place at The NorVa concert hall.