Clarinetist Pete Fountain, whose Dixieland jazz virtuosity and irrepressible wit endeared him to his native New Orleans and earned him decades of national television fame, died Saturday of heart failure, his son-in-law and manager Benny Harrell said. Fountain was 86.
Harrell said Fountain was in hospice care in New Orleans when he died early Saturday.
With his ready wit and infectious laugh, Fountain was the epitome of the happy New Orleanian who knew how to “let the good times roll.” He was well known to television fans through his appearances on the Lawrence Welk and Johnny Carson shows. Even his blues had a happy note.
In New Orleans, he had a club on Bourbon Street for many years. In a city dedicated to tradition, his annual trek through the French Quarter with his “Half-Fast Walking Club” was a raucous New Orleans ritual — one he rarely missed even when he was in failing health.
Fountain, who often split time between the New Orleans area and the Mississippi gulf Coast, suffered devastation when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, destroying his Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, home. But he stayed upbeat. Late in 2005, after several temporary homes, he settled in Hammond, Louisiana, telling The Daily Star newspaper, “We went from 10,000 square feet to 1,500. That’s really what you would call downsizing.”
Fountain started playing professionally on Bourbon Street in his teens. He once called the street of bawdy strip clubs, music joints and bars his “conservatory.” In his early years he toured nationally with the Dukes of Dixieland and the late trumpeter Al Hirt. Real fame came in 1957 when he joined “The Lawrence Welk Show” as a headliner.
His recording of Closer Walk sold more than a half million copies in 1959. It stuck as an unofficial theme song, and he even called his autobiography “A Closer Walk.” His version was so popular that he half-complained that audiences wouldn’t let him off the stage without his playing it again.
Funeral arrangements were pending. Harrell said a funeral Mass was being planned for St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter.
“We’ll have a big jazz funeral after his Mass,” Harrell said.