PETE FOUNTAIN, A CLARINETIST KNOWN FOR HIS HIGH-SPIRITED NEW ORLEANS JAZZ
Pete Fountain, a clarinetist who brought the traditional jazz of his native New Orleans to a national audience through frequent appearances on the Lawrence Welk and Johnny Carson television shows, died on Saturday in New Orleans. He was 86.
The cause was heart failure, said Benny Harrell, Mr. Fountain’s son-in-law.
Mr. Fountain was a mainstay of the New Orleans music scene for more than six decades, a familiar sight at Mardi Gras and the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival. And the appeal of his high-spirited brand of Dixieland stretched far beyond New Orleans, especially after he began appearing on “The Lawrence Welk Show” in 1957.
His outgoing musical style made an odd fit with the sedate “Champagne music” of Mr. Welk’s orchestra — Mr. Fountain often noted that Champagne and bourbon did not mix — but the combination was a hit with viewers, and his segments became a staple of the show. In later years he was also a frequent guest on Mr. Carson’s “Tonight” show.
Peter Dewey Fountain Jr. was born in New Orleans on July 3, 1930, and was exposed from an early age to the lively small-group jazz that was an integral part of that city’s atmosphere. Inspired by Benny Goodman and the New Orleans clarinetist Irving Fazola — and by a family doctor who recommended that he learn a wind instrument to strengthen his weak lungs — he began playing clarinet at age 12. Before he was out of his teens, he had become a familiar presence in the nightclubs on Bourbon Street.
“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.”
A talent scout for Mr. Welk heard him there in 1957 and flew him to Los Angeles for the first of his many featured appearances on Mr. Welk’s popular ABC variety show. He soon moved to Los Angeles but moved back after two years. It was the only time in his life that he was away from the New Orleans area for a significant period.
While living in Los Angeles, Mr. Fountain began a long association with Coral Records. Most of his albums for the label were closer to instrumental pop than to traditional jazz, and the critics were unimpressed, but sales were healthy.
He is survived by his wife, Beverly; a daughter, Darah Fountain Harrell; and two sons, Kevin and Jeffery, all of New Orleans. He is also survived by a sister, Del Materne of New Orleans, and six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
In 1960, shortly after returning to New Orleans, Mr. Fountain bought a local nightclub, the French Quarter Inn, and began a residency there with a small group. Eight years later, he opened a larger room on Bourbon Street, Pete’s Place. The club moved to the Hotel Riverside in 1977 and remained in business until he reluctantly shuttered it in 2003, citing a decline in tourism after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I needed a change. I didn’t want it, but I needed it,” he told The Advocate, a newspaper in Baton Rouge, La. “It’s been a real good ride, and we’ve still got a lot of riding to do.” He continued to perform regularly at a casino in nearby Bay St. Louis, Miss., for many years.
Mr. Fountain struggled to get his life and career in order after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The roof was blown off his house in New Orleans; a second house, in Bay St. Louis, was destroyed. Most of his possessions were lost. Over the next year and a half, by his estimate, he moved eight times.
He was hospitalized shortly after the hurricane, complaining of dizziness and other symptoms. He later told The Associated Press that doctors could find nothing physically wrong with him, and he attributed his illness to “depression about all the stuff that happened.”
His health problems caused Mr. Fountain to miss Mardi Gras in 2006; it was the first time in 46 years that his whimsically named Half-Fast Walking Club participated in the festivities without him. Shortly afterward, he suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery. But he was well enough to perform at the Jazz and Heritage Festival that May (his cardiologist was in attendance in case of an emergency), and despite continuing health problems, he remained a mainstay of that festival, and of the city itself, until 2013.
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the name of Mr. Fountain’s group at Mardi Gras. It is the Half-Fast Walking Club, not the Half-Fast Marching Club.