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Pete Fountain (1930 - 2016)

AP Photo / Bill Haber

Pete Fountain (1930 - 2016)

Pete Fountain, the virtuoso Dixieland jazz clarinetist, died Aug. 6, 2016, of heart failure, according to multiple news sources. He was 86.

He had been in hospice care, his son-in-law and manager, Benny Harrell, told The Associated Press.

Known almost as much for his wit and easygoing personality as his smooth tone and hot licks when playing the clarinet, Fountain embodied the swinging good-time image of his native New Orleans. He entertained generations of jazz fans both in person and on his many television appearances.

Born Pierre LaFontaine Jr. July 3, 1930, he began playing the clarinet as a child on doctor’s orders as therapy for weak lungs. He began performing professionally on Bourbon Street as a teenager, often in bands alongside trumpeter Al Hirt. In a 1979 television interview, the two recalled working as exterminators to make ends meet during those early years.


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In 1957, conductor Lawrence Welk hired Fountain as a featured soloist on “The Lawrence Welk Show,” exposing him to a national audience. He was well-received, but as Fountain wrote later in his autobiography, “A Closer Walk With Pete Fountain,” “Champagne and bourbon don’t mix well.” Welk was upset by Fountain jazzing up his rendition of “Silver Bells” during a Christmas show, and the clarinetist left the show in 1959.

Fountain returned to New Orleans and, with additional notoriety, opened his own club in the French Quarter. He also played with the Dukes of Dixieland for a time. He recorded a single, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” which charted on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960 and became his signature tune. It later inspired the title of his autobiography.

He was also a founding member of the Half-Fast Walking Club, one of the Mardi Gras marching Krewes that help to organize and support carnival activities in the city.

As well as being a local fixture in New Orleans, he kept his national profile high by appearing on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” 58 times over the years.

Fountain is survived by his wife, Beverly; three children; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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