NEW ORLEANS (CelebrityAccess) — Pete Fountain, a clarinetist who helped to spread the gospel of the New Orleans Dixieland sound, died on Saturday in New Orleans. He was 86.
Benny Harrell, Mr. Fountain’s son-in-law and manager told the New York Times that Fountain died of heart failure.
A native of New Orleans, Fountain took to music at an early age, picking up the clarinet at 12, inspired by the sounds of artists such as Benny Goodman and Irving Fazola. His practice bore fruit and by the time he was 16, he was a known quantity in the Bourbon Street club scene.
“When I was a high school senior, my history teacher asked me why I didn’t study more,” he wrote in 2001, in the notes of a CD anthology of his recordings from the 1950s and 1960s. “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 would go on to perform with several notable groups, including the Basin Street Six, which he formed with trumpeter George Girard, as well as stints with the Dukes of Dixieland and with trumpeter Al Hirt.
In 1956, the arrival of both bebop and rock music made the Dixieland sound unfashionable, forcing Fountain to give up music in order to support his family. However, bandleader Lawrence Welk threw Fountain a lifeline in 1957 by offering him a regular gig performing on Welk's hit television program The Lawrence Welk Show.
The exposure on the show helped to propel Fountain's career, making him a nationally recognized artist. He would continue his successful affair with broadcast television, with regular appearances on programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show and Late Night With Johnny Carson.
His success allowed him to return to New Orleans, where he opened his own successful jazz club in the city's French Quarter, later expanding with Pete's Place, — a larger club at a new location. In 1977, he moved the club again but was eventually forced to close it in 2003, citing slowing business.
Hurricane Katrina hit Fountain hard, destroying his home in Bay St. Louis and severely damaging his house in New Orleans. Most of his possessions were destroyed and he suffered from a variety of medical issues that he attributed to depression.
His final performance was in 2013 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Through Pete's career he has received numerous awards and honors including a Doctorate of Music from the College of Santa Fe; he was voted the #1 Jazz Clarinetist for 13 consecutive years in the Playboy Readers Poll; he was King of Bacchus; he received an Emmy for the 1990 Super Bowl Pre-Game Music; and he was awarded the 1993 Louisiana Legends Award, according to his label Verve Records.
Survivors include his wife of 64 years, the former Beverly Lang; three children; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. – Staff Writers