Pierre Dewey LaFontaine Jr., was born July 3, 1930, in New Orleans, the great grandson of a French immigrant who came to the U.S. in the early 19th century. His father would later change his last name to Fountain and Pete followed suit.
As a child, he was very sickly, frequently battling respiratory infections due to weakened lungs. He was given expensive medication but it proved to be not very effective. During a pharmacy visit, Pete’s father began a discussion with a neighborhood doctor who was also there shopping and talked with him about his son’s condition. The doctor agreed to see the boy the following day. After a short exam, the doctor confirmed the weak lung condition and advised the father to try an unorthodox treatment: purchase the child a musical instrument, anything he has to blow into. The same day, they went to a local music store and, given his choice of instruments, Pete chose the clarinet. At first, Pete was unable to produce a sound from the instrument, but he continued to practice and eventually not only made sounds and eventually music, but greatly improved the health of his lungs.
He took private lessons but also learned to play jazz by playing along with records of Benny Goodman and Irving Fazola. Early on he played with the bands of Monk Hazel and Al Hirt. Fountain founded The Basin Street Six in 1950 with his longtime friend, trumpeter George Girard. After this band broke up four years later, Fountain was hired to join the Lawrence Welk Orchestra and became well known for his many solos on Welk’s ABC television show, The Lawrence Welk Show. Fountain was later hired by Decca Records A&R head Charles “Bud” Dant and went on to produce 42 hit albums with Dant. After Welk’s death, Fountain would occasionally join with the Welk musical family for reunion shows.
Fountain married Beverly Lang on October 27, 1951. They have two sons and a daughter: Kevin, Jeffrey, and Dahra.
Fountain returned to his hometown New Orleans and played withThe Dukes of Dixieland, then began leading bands under his own name. He owned his own club in the French Quarter in the 1960s and 1970s. He later acquired “Pete Fountain’s Jazz Club” at the Riverside Hilton in downtown New Orleans. His Quintet was made up of his studio recording musicians, Stan Kenton’s bassist Don Bagley, vibeist Godfrey Hirsch, pianist Merle Koch, and double bass drummer Jack Sperling. Fountain brought this same group with him in 1963 when they played the Hollywood Bowl. Pete would go to Hollywood many times, appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 56 times.
Fountain opened his club, the French Quarter Inn, located in the French Quarter in the spring of 1960. Cliff Arquette and Jonathan Winters were there on opening night and performed their comedy routines. Over the next few years Frank Sinatra, Phil Harris, Carol Lawrence and Robert Goulet, Keely Smith, Robert Mitchum, and Brenda Lee, among many others, came to the club. Many would perform with the band, and Brenda Lee’s sit-in resulted in a duet record album recorded by her and Pete. Benny Goodman came to the club twice, but without bringing his clarinet. In 2003, Fountain closed his club at the Hilton with a performance before a packed house filled with musical friends and fans.
Fountain was a founder and the most prominent member of the Half-Fast Walking Club, one of the best known marching Krewes that parade in New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day. The original name was “The Half-Assed Walking Club,” and it was an excuse to take a musical stroll down the street.
He would go on to record about 90 albums, four of which went gold, Perform for four U.S. presidents and, in September 1987, for Pope John Paul II during the pope’s visit to New Orleans.
Sadly, New Orleans would lose a music legend when Fountain passed away on August 6, 2016 of natural causes.