Born Peter Dewey Fountain, Jr. (family surname originally LaFontaine), July 3, 1930, in New Orleans, LA; father was a delivery truck driver; married Beverly Ann Lang, October 27, 1951; children: Dahra, Kevin, Jeffrey. Addresses: Home-- New Orleans, LA. Other-- New Orleans Hilton, 2 Poydras St., New Orleans, LA 70140.

For the past four decades, Pete Fountain has been among the more recognizable jazz artists in the United States, and one of the most commercially successful, with nearly 50 albums to his credit. The energetic and affable New Orleans clarinetist first rose to prominence in the 1950s as a featured performer on The Lawrence Welk Show, and in the following decades became well known through frequent appearances on television. In a 1985 Down Beat profile, Howard Mandel described Fountain's lively performances on The Tonight Show: "There's Pete Fountain, the smooth-skulled clarinetist, blowing fiercely amidst select musicians from Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show band. I watched once recently as he concentrated all the air in his thick body through his tight embouchure, squealing and piping quite oblivious to anything else."

Fountain's career and sound are invariably connected to his musical hometown, New Orleans. Gunther Schuller, in The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, called him representative of "true New Orleans-style clarinet-playing." Many consider Fountain the personification, together with trumpeter Al Hirt, of the city's famed jazz venue, Bourbon Street. In the foreword to Fountain's autobiography, A Closer Walk: The Pete Fountain Story, Bob Harrington depicted how Fountain echoes the gusto of early New Orleans jazz pioneers, with musical roots in the "heartfelt expression" of gospel songs: "Pete is a prime example of this great musical legacy, handed down carefully and lovingly from the stellar performers of yesterday to our own generation. In his music you can hear the notes and the tones that have permeated Bourbon Street for more than 75 years."

As a young boy, Fountain listened to jazz at the Top Hat Dance Club, an establishment in his neighborhood that featured prominent New Orleans jazz musicians. Another early influence was his father, who could play a number of instruments by ear and first introduced Fountain to improvisation. Sickly as a child, Fountain received his first clarinet when a physician recommended playing it to improve his lung strength. He took formal lessons, but preferred studying the recordings of his idols, Benny Goodman and Irving Fazola, while trying to imitate their sound and style. "It was tough putting the whole thing together," Fountain remembered in his autobiography. "I wanted to play jazz, and I was ready to swing even if my fingers weren't."

Growing up in New Orleans, however, the jazz enthusiast progressed quickly as a musician. He played in his high-school jazz band, and became an avid follower of jazz recordings and radio programs. In his free time, Fountain frequented Bourbon Street music clubs, where he would sneak in back doors to catch performances. "It was from these nights, when I hid behind bandstands or trash containers, that I began to feel the soul and the heartbeat of jazz," Fountain revealed in A Closer Walk. "Things were starting to fall into place for me." At 16 he formed his first band, the Basin Street Four, and was afforded the opportunity to play sets at the Parisian Room, a famous jazz spot in New Orleans. Occasionally Fountain's band members would be allowed to sit in with the headlining bands. "Playing shoulder to shoulder with the jazz giants of the city taught us this timing, and it also taught us a tremendous amount of stage presence," Fountain related. Eventually those sessions were broadcast nationally on a radio program, "The Dixieland Jamboree," and by the time he was a high-school senior, Fountain was earning union scale as a musician--$125 a week.

Fountain continued to work with a number of New Orleans bands and artists, and soon began appearing on recordings. In 1950 he co-founded the Basin Street Six, a Dixieland comic band that landed a television contract with a local station. But Bebop, not Dixieland, was becoming the rage at this time and the Basin Street Six found it difficult booking work. They eventually disbanded and Fountain headed to Memphis and Chicago with a new group, the Three Coins. The move from New Orleans--and his family--however, took its toll. The clarinetist recounted in his autobiography that he began drinking heavily at this time, and contemplated giving up music altogether. He returned to New Orleans in the mid-1950s, not sure whether he would resume his music career.

Fountain's plans changed dramatically in 1956; bandleader Lawrence Welk, impressed with recordings of Fountain that he'd heard and wanting to "jazz up" his band, asked Fountain to join his national television show, which was produced in California. Fountain accepted, and his performances on the popular show generated hundreds of fan letters each week. Fountain headlined with Welk's band, and was featured in advertisements for its national concert tours, one of which took the group to Carnegie Hall, a thrill for Fountain. Exposure from the Welk show made Fountain a household name, and he soon became a frequent performer on television specials. Despite his success in California, however, Fountain and his family were continually homesick for New Orleans.

In 1959, at the height of his television popularity, Fountain returned to his hometown. Before leaving, though, he had signed a lucrative contract with Coral Records; his first two albums, Pete Fountain's New Orleans and The Blues, were particularly big sellers. Fountain enjoyed his newly acquired autonomy and soon formed a band in New Orleans; his name had made him one of the city's biggest attractions. In 1960 he established his own jazz club, "The French Quarter Inn," which became one of the hottest spots in New Orleans. Nine years later Fountain opened "Pete's Place" at 231 Bourbon Street, and later relocated to a posh 500-seat room in the New Orleans Hilton. Today, Fountain and his band still play at the Hilton; he has truly become one of New Orleans's local legends.

The title of Fountain's 1972 autobiography, in which he recalls his life and career, is taken from one of his trademark songs, "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." New Orleans remains home to Fountain and he continues his love affair with jazz and the clarinet. Musically, he adheres to the older-style jazz that made him famous: "My solos change--from reed to reed," he told Down Beat' s Mandel. "They change personality from what I eat, from my day. I try to keep the improvisation alive, and not get stale that way, or into a rut. But the licks in the background stay the same." Content with his life in the city that has been his inspiration, and with his stature in American music, Fountain nonetheless spoke with some nostalgia of his younger days: "I've had my good times; I feel good now, and don't want to burn myself out. I only drink wine now; I used to like bourbon, then vodka, then it got time to cool it. But I'm still enjoyin'. I enjoy everything I have. But if I had that youth again--whew!"

by Michael E. Mueller

Pete Fountain's Career

Has played with numerous bands throughout career, including Phil Zito and the International Dixieland Express, late 1940s, the Basin Street Six (co-founder), 1950-54, the Dukes of Dixieland, beginning 1954, the Three Coins (founder), and the Lawrence Welk band (on television), 1957-59; established the French Quarter Inn, 1960, and Pete's Place, 1969, both New Orleans jazz clubs; published autobiography, A Closer Walk: The Pete Fountain Story, 1972; currently leads band at the New Orleans Hilton. Has performed on numerous television shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, Kraft Music Hall, and The Tonight Show; subject of John Byers's television documentary, Pete, PBS-TV, 1980.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 13 years ago

Tulia and I were 23, and the only patron's of Pete's new club late one evening in November, 1960. Pete and his Xylophone player jammed for us for an hour or so. Unforgettable!

over 13 years ago

I grew up listening to Pete Fountain and just recently while in NOLA bought the CD Swigin' Blues. I am not disappointed. Lots of memories. Thanks.

over 14 years ago

met pete about 7 years ago. when my husband and i ,went to the casino magic jn bay st, his music.thank you pete.

almost 15 years ago

met pete thru his sister who worked with me at gulf oil. in order for pete to date he had to doble date with sister. later on he was with george giruad (BasinStreet Six) and preformed at night club in abbeville, La. webt to club, wee reminised about old times and was graciou enough to iontroduce me to band members. saw him again with lawrence welk band. class act. he was my 15 minutes of fame.

about 15 years ago

My parents, who live with me, are 98 and 101. My father started talking about Pete and wondered about him so I went on-line to get this information. They remember Pete playing in Westwego, LA at a club called "Rachel's on the Hill" with the Basin Street Six, probably one of the first places where he played.

almost 16 years ago

Is "A Closer Walk," Pete's autobiography? If so, where can I buy a copy at a reasonable price? Thanks.

over 16 years ago

Hi! Please let me know how can I found those albums... 1)These were the days 1968 Coral crl 757505 2) A taste of honey 1966 Coral crl 757486 3) I've got you under my skin 1966 CORAL 1966 CRL 757488 4)MOOD INDIGO APRIL 8-2007 CORAL 757484 5) BOTH SIDE NOW 1968 CORAL 757507 6)PETE FOUNTAIN'S GOLDEN FAVORITES CORAL CRL 757511 ( THANKS)

over 16 years ago

Trying to locate a copy of the song Amazing Grace by Pete Fountain. Does anyone know the album name this would be on - and how I can get a copy of the album or the individual song. If sending an e-mail - please use Pete Fountain in the Subject line or I will just erase it without reading it. Thanks

almost 17 years ago

If you would like to read more about the recordings of Pete Fountain in detail, please visit the only illustrated discography dedicated to the artist.