Moments before Jake Clemons’ career with the E Street Band began in 2012 with a show in Greensboro, Bruce Springsteen offered some words of wisdom to the new guy in his backing band.
“Bruce pulled me aside and said, ‘You have to realize that you haven’t earned it,” Clemons says in a phone interview from Montreal.
It might have sounded jarring, but it had nothing to do with Clemons joining the band. It was all about Springsteen’s storied approach to performing.
“He continued and told me that it was about how you have to earn it every night at every show,” Clemons said. “That’s how Bruce views it, even after 40 plus years of performance. I think about his advice every day of my life. I get it that people sacrifice hours of work to buy a ticket, get a babysitter and drive to the event. So when they come to a show, you have to deliver.”
If a musician named Clemons performing with Springsteen sounds familiar, you’re onto something. Clemons, 37, is the nephew of the late Clarence Clemons, who played with Springsteen for almost four decades.
After Clarence Clemons passed away in 2011, Springsteen, who likes to keep it in the family, offered Jake Clemons the opportunity to take over for his uncle.
“I still wasn’t sure if that was the right thing to do,” Clemons recalls. “But I decided to go ahead with it and pay homage to Clarence. The common denominator is that Bruce and I loved Clarence.”
Clemons, like his uncle, plays saxophone with Springsteen.
But when he’s performing solo, like he will Sunday at Local 506 in Chapel Hill, he’ll sing, play guitar, piano and some sax as he showcases his solid solo album, “Fear & Love.” Clemons’ first full-length release is comprised of raw, gritty rock.
During a show in June at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, Clemons delivered a spirited set filled with hope and redemption, which is cut from the Springsteen cloth. Clemons added some covers, such as “You’re a Friend of Mine,” which was a hit for his uncle a generation ago.
“My uncle was a huge influence in my life,” says Clemons, a Virginia Beach native. “He inspired me to become a musician.”
Clarence Clemons was the anomaly in the family.
“He was very different than my father,” Clemons says. He cites the movie “Twins,” a film in which massive Arnold Schwarzenegger and diminutive Danny DeVito play unlikely long lost twins, and adds, “That’s the difference between my father and my uncle.”
Clarence Clemons aka “The Big Man” towered over most at 6’5″ and was a laidback and loose character. However, Jake Clemons’ father, who was 5’9,” was a military lifer and stern taskmaster, who forbade secular music in his house.
“That’s just the way it was,” Clemons says. “My dad was strict.”
However, he let his son catch his brother’s show in Charlotte in 1988 when Springsteen and the E Street Band showcased the “Tunnel of Love” album.
“I was 8 and blown away,” Clemons said. “After the show, I told my dad that I wanted to play saxophone.” He said, ‘Really?'”
Before picking up the sax, Clemons had to take years of piano lessons. But it all worked out in the end.
“It’s been amazing,” Clemons says. “I remember the first song I played with the band, which was ‘Badlands’ and it’s been an incredible ride since then.”
When Clemons isn’t tied to the E Street Band, he’s working on solo material. “I’m writing all of the time,” Clemons says. “I’m always filled with music. And fortunately I have an outlet.”
And just like Springsteen schooled him when he joined the E Street Band, he has the same approach as a solo artist.
“I go all out when I perform,” Clemons says. “That’s the only way I know how to do since the E Street Band has had such an impact on me.”
Jake Clemons with E-S Guthrie
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 17. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Where: Local 506, 506 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
Cost: $20 in advance, $22 day of show.
Info: 919-942-5506 or local506.com