On April 28, 2007, stalwart Mill Valley guitarist Jimmy Dillon played a gig with his ska band The Edge at the venerable Sweetwater.
His longtime friend Clarence Clemons was in the house on one of his regular lengthy visits to Marin, this time to record some music with producer Narada Michael Walden. And as with most nights when Dillon and Clemons got together, things went well.
Dillon met his now-fiancee, Kelli Hill, with whom he is set to tie the knot in Maui in August, that night. Clemons, a cornerstone of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, also met his wife Victoria that night, telling Dillon, “I’m going to marry that woman.”
“It was crazy,” Dillon said. “Clarence got up on stage with us, and he played this Caribbean style saxophone, and he just lit the place up. I guess it’s just one more thing to thank Clarence for.”
Dillon is still reeling from the news that Clemons, widely known as “Big Man” for his 6-foot-5 and 270-pound stature and even bigger presence, died Saturday evening at 69, just days after . Clemons had been in serious but stable condition and underwent two surgeries.
"Clarence lived a wonderful life,” Springsteen said in a statement. “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 40 years."
Dillon has 22 years of memories with Clemons to draw on for solace. That span stretches from their first meeting at a jam session at 19 Broadway in Fairfax in March 1989 to a string of shows they did at the last October, including an open mic night they did with local legend Austin De Lone.
“Clarence could be funny as hell, but he also had a regal presence about him,” Dillon said. “He was like an old soul. He had this ancestral vibe to him. Like an African chief.”
Dillon first met Clemons on the heels of Springsteen’s decision to disband the E Street Band, though the group later reunited in 1999. Dillon said Clemons was anxious at the time to form his own band and settle in Marin for a while. He lived in Novato for a spell, and later in Mill Valley and Sausalito.
Clemons made Dillon his musical director soon after, and the group they formed went out on tour in November 1989, starting in San Diego and working its way up the West Coast. At a stop at the Ventura Theatre, Springsteen jumped onstage, as did Jackson Browne and Daryl Hannah, Dillon said.
The pair toured together on and off for the next six years, playing four regular shows a month at the Sweetwater, powering through a host of original songs and covers. They picked up gigs everywhere, including a performance at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.
“You just had a steam engine of a band up there for those shows,” Dillon said. “It was just like Clarence to want to play a lot, and that’s what we did.”
Dillon said Clemons inspired him to record his first solo album in 1995, and always flew in when he could to perform at benefit shows for Dillon’s Blue Star Music Camps.
“He always said yes,” Dillon said. “And it was contagious.”
Clemons spent several weeks living at a condo in Mill Valley last fall while recovering from spinal surgery, and hooked up with Dillon, DeLone, drummer Paul Revelli and bassist Eric McMann for a at the . They performed as Temple of Soul West, a Left Coast version of Clemons’ band, performing solo tracks from each of them as well as a host of covers from Springsteen and others.
They also served as the house band for an open mic night at the Woods, with Clemons performing in part from a tall stool to rest his back but still blasting away at the saxophone, DeLone said.
“They were fantastic,” DeLone said of the shows. “It was really great to play with him again.
“He was incredibly sweet that way,” DeLone said Clemons.
“People had such great affection for him,” Dillon added. “Everybody loved the Big Man.”