BIG MAN, BIG SOUND

The answering machine in Clarence Clemons' office concludes with Clemons' warm voice asking the caller to "have a joy filled day" — with emphasis on the "j-o-y filled."

From the stirring conclusion of 1975's "Thunder Road" to the elegant work on 1995's "Secret Garden," it's Clemons who has brought joy to millions with his stellar saxophone playing and renowned work with Bruce Springsteen.

Later, when Clemons returns the call, his voice doesn't boom nearly as loud as his sax. His answers to questions are short and come quickly, without hesitation. Calling from San Francisco, the soft-spoken former E Streeter is cordial, relaxed, and looking forward to returning East for a short string of club dates with one of his favorite acts, Steve Smith & The Nakeds.

"I come back every once in a while and go out and have fun," says Clemons, affectionately known as "The Big Man" in rock's circles. "This is really a fun band to play with — I look forward to getting back and doing it ... These guys are really great musicians."

Steve Smith & The Nakeds, a 10-piece rhythm and blues band, has been together for more than 20 years. Rhode Island-based, the band consists of vocalist Steve Smith as well as a four-piece rhythm section and a five-piece horn section.

Clemons first encountered the band at a benefit in Washington, D.C. eight years ago. On stage, he says the show will feature a mix of rock classics and favorites, as well as some of his vast solo material. (Clemons has released five solo albums, most recently, "Peace Maker," an instrumental collection featuring saxophone and African drum sounds.)

Clemons says he simply turns to life's experiences when seeking inspiration for songwriting. That, he says, could mean personal, or observational.

"I collaborate with other people when I find it necessary," he says. "You get inspired and you just go ahead and go for it. The thing is, you've got to get the inspiration ... once I'm inspired, the rest of it comes pretty easy."

Clemons is reminded that despite his and the saxophone's seeming popularity in rock music, it's still not an instrument common to Top-40 hits.

"I'm glad," he says with a chuckle. "It's a special kind of sound that only fits in special places. It's refreshing when you hear it."

After working rather consistently with Bruce Springsteen from 1971-1989, Clemons hasn't spent much time in recent years with the famous singer/songwriter. Springsteen opted not to work with the E Street Band for 1992's "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" albums, or for 1995's folk-inspired "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Still, there was a brief reunion in 1994 for the recording of some new tracks for Springsteen's "Greatest Hits" package.

"It was like going home," recalls Clemons. "It felt very natural and it felt very good — it was a good time."

The recordings also fueled rumors of an impending full-blown E Street reunion album and tour.

"Everybody was hoping for that, I guess," he says. "I was hoping so — but who knows? I'll just wait and see like everybody else. But I'll continue to do what I do, and do my own work and my own music. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't — it was great."

It's an E Street show that Clemons points to as the highlight of his career — a concert in East Berlin on the group's "Tunnel of Love" tour. Performing behind the Iron Curtain, says Clemons, proved unforgettable.

"It was just taboo," he says, "The mystique of playing in a communist country and playing 'Born In the U.S.A.' — that kind of added to the intensity."

Clemons says those attending his shows with Steve Smith & The Nakeds are also in for a memorable experience — and a big horn sound.

"They're going to have a good time," he says. "It's going to be like the old days. That's my word — the old days are back."