5 Top Bruce Springsteen Songs with Iconic Sax Solos

There are many reasons Bruce Springsteen is leaning on Clarence Clemons on the cover of his most iconic album, Born to Run. On the simplest level, it’s a great photo. Yet it’s also a tacit admission to just how much Springsteen would come to rely on his cohorts in the E Street Band over the course of his career, especially Clemons. In addition to being Bruce’s on-stage foil, The Big Man also proved essential to so many iconic songs by the Boss with his saxophone assistance. Let’s take a look at five occasions where Springsteen songs just wouldn’t quite be the same without Clarence’s input.

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1. “Born to Run” (from Born to Run, 1975)

Springsteen intended “Born to Run” to be an homage to the Phil Spector productions he grew up loving. That necessitated a busy mix, but he made sure to make room for Clemons to come aboard and take the spotlight during the instrumental section in the middle of the song. Many of the other solos on this list come at a more relaxed pace, but here, Clemons had to hustle. In doing so, he manages to capture the frantic lifestyle suggested by the title. But he also managed to evoke some of the itchy frustrations of the narrator, who feels hemmed in on all sides by the harsh realities he faces and sees escape as his only salvation. “Born to Run” helped to break the dam and make Springsteen a household name. It’s hard to imagine it having quite the same impact without Clemons providing that crucial shot of momentum.

2. “Jungleland” (from Born to Run, 1975)

Clemons’ sax solo on “Born to Run” is probably his most well-known because of how popular the song is. But his best solo, and probably the one most instrumental to the success of the song it adorned, comes in the middle of “Jungleland.” Springsteen used the song as a magnum opus to close out the Born to Run album, summing up all the themes that he had been parading past the audience up to that point. In the middle of the involved narrative, the frantic pace suddenly jolts to a halt and Clemons’ sax rings out across the tableau. He then goes off for a couple of minutes and seems to exorcise all the demons haunting the song’s cast of characters. It was a bold decision by Springsteen to include this section in what was an already-long song, and he allegedly went over the solo with Clemons note for note in a marathon session. But who could ever argue with the magnificence of the end result?

3. “Bobby Jean” (from Born in the U.S.A., 1984)

Springsteen released a slew of smash singles from his Born in the U.S.A., but you can make the argument that the best song on the album was a non-single. “Bobby Jean” is one of the finest songs about friendship in the rock canon, in large part because it looks at the concept with untrammeled honesty. Likely inspired by Steve Van Zandt’s decision to leave the E Street Band about that time, the song features a narrator pouring out a mixture of emotions to his departing friend: sorrow at the times they won’t get to spend, anger at the hastiness of the exit, and gratitude for the wonderful times spent. But Springsteen wisely leaves the final section of the song to Clemons, who somehow managed to summon every last one of those conflicting feelings in his notes, each one held so long that they’re the equivalent of a series of long goodbyes.

4. “Spirit in the Night” (from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., 1973)

The bulk of Springsteen’s debut album carried a distinct singer/songwriter vibe, because that was the prevalent sound at the time. But Columbia record exec Clive Davis requested some more commercial material after hearing an early mix, and Bruce wrote two more songs as a result: “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night.” The latter song, a shaggy-dog tale of youngsters partying with reckless abandon in a mystical lakeside spot, swaggered and swayed unlike anything else on the debut, and that’s largely due to Clemons’ efforts. His solo in the middle portion gave the song a funky edge while hopscotching into all the gaps in drummer Vini Lopez’s stutter-stepping beat.

5. “Independence Day” (from The River, 1980)

Springsteen had largely left behind the youthful, ne’er-do-well protagonists of his early albums by the time The River rolled around in 1980. The music had to match, so the rock operatic stuff was out in favor of a much starker sound. Yet Clemons proved to be just as indispensable as ever, playing solos that matched the gravitas of the new surroundings. Listen to what he does in the solo to “Independence Day,” Springsteen’s semi-autobiographical look at a frayed father-son relationship. Springsteen is a fine rock singer, but he was wise to have Clemons deliver the emotional expression in songs like this. The Big Man never steered him wrong in that department.

Photo by Steve Rapport/Getty Images

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