Pete Fountain, drummer? Here’s how it almost happened.
The old man said to pick any instrument, and so little Pete picked the drums. The problem was that the whole reason he was picking out an instrument in the first place was because a doctor suggested the sickly 11-year-old play a wind instrument to strengthen his lungs. So: Pick again. Option No. 2 was the clarinet. By the time he graduated from high school, Pete Fountain was a regular in New Orleans clubs, and well on his way to becoming one of the smiling faces of New Orleans’ jazz tradition for the second half of the 20th century.
Fountain died in 2016 at 86 years old, but he left behind a legacy that can be expected to live in New Orleans for decades to come. In addition to being enshrined in the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and at Musical Legends Park on Bourbon Street, Fountain in April 2017 was named a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival “ancestor” — meaning his likeness will be featured on the Fair Grounds infield for all future editions of the fest. At its unveiling, Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis marked the occasion with three words: “Welcome back, Pete.”
- Fountain’s father was a Dixie Beer truck driver. Young Pete would sometimes help him on the route. “The cases were wooden back then,” Fountain said in a 2003 interview with The Times-Picayune. “They were a load. Summers were enough for me. That’s what made me play the clarinet.”
- In the liner notes for a 2001 CD collection of his music, Fountain wrote how he became a full-time musician: “When I was a high school senior, 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 I should play full time. I guess I was a professional from that point on.”
- Fountain formed his own band, the Basin Street Six, in 1950. That band broke up in 1954, and by the late ’50s he was playing at Dan Levy’s Pier 600 in New Orleans with another jazz legend: trumpeter Al Hirt.
It was at Pier 600 that a talent scout for Lawrence Welk’s ABC music show saw Fountain play and booked him to appear on the show. His subsequent appearances on Welk’s show — as well as on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” on which he would appear some 60 times — would bring Fountain nationwide fame.
- Starting in 1960, Fountain began residencies at two New Orleans clubs he owned: first at the French Quarter Inn, then at Pete’s Place which was first on Bourbon Street but which by 1977 had moved to the Hilton Riverside, where it operated — and where Fountain played regularly — until 2003.
- Fountain favored playing with a crystal mouthpiece. That, combined with the large-bore clarinet on which he played, has been credited with helping create the warm sounds associated with his playing.
- After his rendition of the standard “A Closer Walker With Thee” sold more than a half-million copies in 1959, it became something of an unofficial theme song of Fountain’s. He even titled his 1972 autobiography, “A Closer Walk.”
In addition to playing for presidents (Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush) Fountain played for Pope John Paul II during the pontiff’s 1987 visit to New Orelans. After the performance, which also included selections by Al Hirt and Ronnie Cole, the pope said, “‘I’ve always heard of the beautiful music of New Orleans. Now, I can witness it.”
- Fountain has the distinction of delivering the very first performance at the very first Jazz Fest. That was in 1970, and Fountain and his band launched things with a kickoff cruise on the S.S. President on April 22. The rest of that inaugural fest ran from April 23 to 26.
- Fountain would become a Jazz Fest regular for years. He last appearance at the annual was in 2013.
- He recorded more than 100 albums over the years.
- In addition to becoming a fixture on national TV and local stages, Fountain in 1961 started a Mardi Gras marching club, the Half-Fast Walking Club — a troupe of musician revelers — which still parades with trademark casualness every Fat Tuesday.
- Fountain’s homes in New Orleans and Bay St. Louis were damaged in Hurricane Katrina. Not coincidentally, Mardi Gras 2006 — the first Carnival after the storm — was the first time in 46 years he didn’t march with his Half-Fast Marching Club.
Whether he was showing off his chops on “The Tonight Show” or his distinctly local patois in a commercial for the Fair Grounds, the affable Pete Fountain was for decades one of the most notable ambassadors for New Orleans music. But, with his trademark bald pate and goatee, he was also pure cool — and purely New Orleans. “New Orleans is my home, always has been, always will be,” he said in a 2006 interview. “I was born in New Orleans, and besides a few years in California when I was on the Lawrence Welk show, I’ve lived here most of my life. … I’ve been proud to represent (New Orleans) around the world. The city, like the Quarter, always seems to come back. And after playing the music of New Orleans elsewhere, it always felt great to come home.”