Say what you want about the old Lawrence Welk show but from the mid 1950’s until 1982, it delivered musical performances weekly into the living rooms of folks who probably wouldn’t otherwise catch a live performance.
And some of the hippest episodes included solo turns by Pete Fountain, the legendary clarinetist from New Orleans who died last Saturday (August 6). He was 86.
Pierre Dewey LaFountaine Jr. was born in New Orleans and grew up in Mid-City. He began blowing the clarinet initially as a way to build up his lungs, after suffering from respiratory infections. He played in local school bands but apparently never completed high school because by that time, he was playing in the clubs downtown and wasn’t able to stay awake in class. Though he received honorary doctorates in music, he described himself as an alumnus of the Conservatory of Bourbon Street.
Discovered by a talent scout, he performed with the Lawrence Welk show in 1958 and 1959 where he quickly gained national recognition for his solos. Here’s a video of the show where he is playing Tiger Rag. As you might imagine, his style conflicted with Lawrence Welk or as Fountain put it: “Champagne and bourbon don’t mix.”
He returned to New Orleans with a recording contract, eventually issuing over a 100 recordings over his career. What I appreciate about Fountain is that despite his fame, he stayed close to home. He opened a night club in French Quarter and founded the Half Fast Walking Club — a parade he led on Mardi Gras mornings.He now joins the many musical legends of the city. You’ll find his statue at the Musical Legends Park on Bourbon Street and you can listen to the Gumbo YaYa episode he inspired.