Famed New Orleans, Louisiana, jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain has died at age 86. After battling numerous health problems over the years, the NOLA music legend passed away of heart failure early Saturday morning.
“It’s a sad day for his family. And it’s sad to for all of New Orleans. Pete and his clarinet brought a lot of love and music to the world,” said Benny Harrell, Pete Fountain’s son-in-law and longtime manager. “He will greatly be missed.”
Well known in the New Orleans French Quarter since the 1960s, Fountain performed for numerous presidents and even Pope John Paul II during his long career. He remained active until a stroke and heart surgery forced the Louisiana-native into retirement in April 2014.
Fountain began playing on Bourbon Street when he was still in his teens, often earning more than $150 a night. He was performing so many shows late into the evening, the young musician had trouble staying awake during his high school classes. Frustrated with Fountain’s lack of attention, a teacher encouraged the clarinetist to give up his schoolwork and pursue music instead.
After spending years playing at various strip clubs and music joints in NOLA, he eventually got a national gig with the Dukes of Dixieland. Fountain’s big break came in 1957 when he became the headliner for The Lawrence Welk Show.
After two years leading the band on the show, Fountain became homesick, packed up his belongings, and moved back to New Orleans. Once back home, he opened his own music club just down the block from another club he co-owned with fellow musician and friend Al Hirt. Later, the Hilton Hotel booked him for a permanent show where he continued to find success.
In 1959, Fountain recorded a song named “Closer Walk,” which sold over 500,000 copies. The song became his signature hit and audiences demanded he play it twice during live performances.
While Fountain did find national recognition, times weren’t always good. For a short period, Fountain and Hirt had to work as exterminators to make ends meet.
“He was in the roach division. I was in the termite division,” Fountain once teased.
As fame eventually made its way back to Fountain, the NOLA clarinetist was often booked on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. During his career, he recorded more than 50 albums, four of which went gold, and lent his musical talent to 44 more.
Many considered Fountain the embodiment of everything New Orleans represents. He was a usual sight during NOLA’s most famous celebration, Mardi Gras. Every year, revelers would often spot him walking a parade route alongside other celebrities like John Goodman and Phil Harris.
In addition to countless performances in the Big Easy, Fountain spent a lot of time playing at casinos along the Gulf Coast in his later years. He owned a home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, roughly 50 miles from New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home in 2005, the NOLA legend remained optimistic and moved to Hammond, Louisiana.
“We went from 10,000 square feet to 1,500. That’s really what you would call downsizing,” he told the Daily Star shortly after relocating.
Despite losing most of his belongings and music memorabilia, Fountain committed to keep playing.
“I’m too slow and too nervous to steal, so I have to keep tootin’,” he said during a WWL-TV interview.
Pierre Dewey Fountain Jr. was born on July 3, 1930 and picked up the clarinet only because his doctor thought playing it would strengthen his weak lungs. Final arrangements are yet to be announced, but family members promise a traditional NOLA “jazz funeral after his Mass.” Fountain is survived by his wife, six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
[Photo by Alex Brandon/AP Images]