Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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FOUNTAIN, Pete

(b Pierre Dewey LaFontaine Jr., 3 July 1930, New Orleans LA; d there 6 August 2016) Clarinettist and bandleader, a New Orleans fixture for decades, a familiar sight at Mardi Gras and the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival. Influenced by Benny Goodman and Irving Fazola, another New Orleans-born clarinetist, he began playing at age 12, and within a few years was falling asleep in school because he was working nights in clubs on Bourbon Street, making more money than his teacher.

The teenaged Fountain played excellent clarinet on an album by Phil Zito (b Philip Anthony Zito, 8 August 1913, New Orleans; d there 2 August 1998). Drummer Zito had been a spark plug for Dixieland jazz since at least 1935; the album by his New Orleans International City Dixielanders was released on Columbia in 1950 on all three speeds. Fountain left Zito that year with trumpeter/vocalist George Girard to form the Basin Street Six. That band broke up '54; Fountain worked with the Dukes of Dixieland in Chicago, then co-led a band with trumpeter Al Hirt at a New Orleans nightclub, where he was spotted by a talent scout in 1957 who flew him to Los Angeles for the first of many appearances on Lawrence Welk’s TV show. Fountain's obituaries were predictably dismissive of this, but Welk was no fool; his program may have been corny, but it was wall-to-wall music, and other jazzmen who guested on it were swing era veterans like clarinettist Peanuts Hucko and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, a star of the Duke Ellington band. 

Fountain also appeared on the Johnny Carson show, and his new fame landed him a Coral recording contract: a dozen albums charted in the 1960s. The first one, Pete Fountain's New Orleans in 1960, was the only one to reach the top ten of the Billboard album chart. Bourbon Street '62 included Hirt, and Pete's Place '65 became the name of Fountain's club.

He had moved to Los Angeles in the late '50s, but back to New Orleans by 1960, where he bought a nightclub, the French Quarter Inn, and eight years later opened a larger room on Bourbon Street which he called Pete's Place, moving to the Hotel Riverside in 1977. That lasted until 2003, a victim of the decline in tourism after 9/11.

He continued playing at a casino in Bay St. Louis in nearby Mississippi, but along with many other natives of New Orleans, he lost virtually everything during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and his health began to fail. In 2006 he missed Mardi Gras, the first time in nearly half a century that his Half-Fast Walking Club participated in that festival without him. But he played at the Jazz and Heritage Festival that May, and continued as a mainstay of that fest until 2013.