July 04, 2011 12:00 PM

The last image many music fans will have of Clarence Clemons is a familiar one: blowing his tenor saxophone-and looking cool as ever-in the video for Lady Gaga’s hit “The Edge of Glory,” a song aptly about crossing over to the other side. On June 18, three days after the clip premiered, Clemons, 69, died in a Florida hospital of complications from a stroke.

Far beyond bringing a bit of Born to Run to Born This Way, Clemons’s musical legacy, of course, stems from four decades as a founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. He was the smiling sideman who soloed on classics like “Thunder Road” and “Dancing in the Dark,” and, at 6’4″ and about 250 lbs., was affectionately called the Big Man by the Boss. “He was my great friend, my partner,” Springsteen said in a statement. “And with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in the music.”

Clemons received his first sax for Christmas at age 9, but the Norfolk, Va., native was also a talented athlete, playing college football and even trying out for the Dallas Cowboys. He found his true calling after meeting-and spontaneously jamming with-Springsteen at an Asbury Park, N.J., club in 1971. Former E Street Band drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez calls Clemons “one of the best saxophone players of all time,” adding that playing “was like breathing for him.”

Over the years Clemons (who is survived by fifth wife Victoria and four sons) released solo albums, collaborated with artists such as Aretha Franklin (on 1985’s “Freeway of Love”) and occasionally acted (Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York). But he’ll be remembered as much for his jovial spirit as his legendary wail. “His warmth came out in his playing,” says Paul Shaffer, who rocked with Clemons on the Late Show with David Letterman. “He was a sweet, sweet soul.”

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