The world of Jazz has lost a legend.
Heart failure on August 6 at the age of 86 ended the colorful career of the great Pete Fountain who introduced and presented his native New Orleans-style jazz to a national audience for more than 60 years. Born Pierre Dewey LaFontaine Jr., his career almost happened by accident because as a child he was sickly and had weak lungs due to respiratory infections.
Growing up a skinny kid, he admits he spent too much time hanging around the front stoop of the Top Hat Dance Club near his home. The Top Hat was a stronghold of Dixieland jazz, and it soon had a powerful hold on young Pete Fountain. A doctor recommended that his father buy his son an instrument into which he would blow. So inspired by Benny Goodman and fellow New Orleanian Irving Fazola, Pete selected the clarinet, which greatly improved the health of his lungs.
He turned pro at 15, working multiple nights on Bourbon Street. “When I was a high school senior,” he related, “my history teacher asked me why I didn’t study more. I answered that I was too busy playing clarinet every night, and when I told him I was making scale—about $125 a week—he said that was more than he made and that I should play full time.” Among the bands with whom he played during those formative years were the Junior Dixieland Band at the famous Persian Room, and Phil Zito’s International Dixieland Express at the El Morocco.
He formed the Basin Street Six with his longtime friend George Girard in 1950. “We clowned around a lot with that group, but most of the time we played good music.” After four years, the band broke up, and Pete worked briefly with the Dukes of Dixieland in Chicago before teaming up with trumpeter Al Hirt to lead a band that had an extended engagement at Dan’s Pier 600 nightclub back in NOLA.
Pete was hired by Lawrence Welk after a talent scout heard him in 1957, and he became nationally-known for his many solos on Welk’s ABC television show. He left Welk after two years to return to New Orleans, saying “Champagne and bourbon don’t mix.” He owned and performed at a couple clubs: the French Quarter Inn and Pete’s Place, which ultimately moved to the Riverside Hilton in Downtown New Orleans.
He had a friendly rivalry with Al Hirt whose club was down the street from Fountain’s. They stole musicians from each other, occasionally came to the other’s club to play, and later recorded several albums together. Pete closed his club at the Hilton in 2003 and began performing two nights a week at Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
The roof was blown off his home during Hurricane Katrina, and a second house which he owned in Bay St. Louis was completely destroyed. Most of his possessions were lost, and he estimated he moved at least eight times over the next 18 months. Soon after the Hurricane, he was hospitalized, complaining of dizziness and other symptoms. But the doctors could find nothing physically wrong with him, and he attributed his illness to “depression about all the stuff that happened.”
He was a founder of The Half-Fast Walking Club, one of the best-known marching Krewes that parade on Mardi Gras Day. The original name was “The Half-Assed Walking Club,” which Pete said was “an excuse to take a lubricated musical stroll down the parade route.” It wasn’t long before the parade organizers pressured Pete to come up with a more respectable name.
He appeared on the Johnny Carson Show 59 times, entertained four U.S. presidents and a Pope, and performed at halftime of two Super Bowls. Various medical issues slowed him in recent years, including emergency bypass heart surgery and two strokes in 2006, which made speaking difficult. Following his 2013 appearance at the Jazz & Heritage Festival, he decided to put his horn away, and he announced his official retirement.
Pete Fountain recorded more than 100 albums and will long be remembered for his sweet and swinging renditions of such signature tunes as “Just A Closer Walk with Thee,” “Basin Street Blues,” “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque,” and “Tin Roof Blues.” A Louisiana Music Hall of Famer, he was a great ambassador for the City of New Orleans who never forgot his roots and who is widely acclaimed as one of the most popular and successful jazz clarinetists in music history.