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Saturday, January 26, 2019

Pierre Dewey LaFontaine, Jr.

     Better known as Pete Fountain (July 3, 1930 – August 6, 2016) was an American jazz clarinetist who was born in New Orleans. He was the great-grandson of a French immigrant, François Fontaine, who was born in Toulon, circa 1796, and came to the U.S. in the early 19th century, and died on the Mississippi Gulf Coast circa 1885. Pete's father, a truck driver and part-time musician, changed the family name to Fountain. 
      He started playing clarinet as a child. 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, his 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 (after first wanting the drums, which his father declined per the doctor's orders). 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 phonograph records of first Benny Goodman and then Irving Fazola. By the time he reached his teens, he was playing regular gigs in the nightclubs on Bourbon Street. 
     A talent scout for Lawrence Welk saw him performing and invited him to join Welk's orchestra in Los Angeles, where he relocated and lived for two years. He was rumored to have quit when Welk refused to let him "jazz up" a Christmas carol on the 1958 Christmas show. Other accounts, including one in Fountain's autobiography A Closer Walk With Pete Fountain, indicate he in fact played a jazzy rendition of "Silver Bells" on the show which upset Welk, leading to Fountain's departure in early 1959. In an interview, Fountain said he left The Lawrence Welk Show because "champagne and bourbon don't mix." 
     Lawrence Welk (March 11, 1903 – May 17, 1992) was a musician, accordionist, bandleader and television impresario, who hosted the television program The Lawrence Welk Show from 1951 to 1982.  His style came to be known to his large audience of radio, television, and live-performance fans (and critics) as "champagne music". 
     Welk's show mainly targeted older viewers, they seldom played recent music with which the audience might not be familiar.  The show was conservative, concentrating on popular music standards, show tunes, polkas, and novelty songs, delivered in a smooth, calm, good-humored easy-listening style and "family-oriented." 
     Welk's insistence on wholesome entertainment led him to be a somewhat stern taskmaster at times. For example, he fired Alice Lon, at the time the show's "Champagne Lady," because he believed she was showing too much leg. Welk told the audience that he would not tolerate such "cheesecake" performances on his show; he later tried unsuccessfully to rehire the singer after fan mail indicated overwhelmingly that viewers opposed her dismissal. He then had a series of short-term "Champagne Ladies" before Norma Zimmer filled that spot on a permanent basis. 
     Highly involved with his stars' personal lives, Welk often arbitrated their marital disputes. His musical conservatism caused occasional controversies as well. Despite the authentic New Orleans Dixieland clarinet that made him a popular cast member, Fountain returned to New Orleans, played with the 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. 
     Fountain was a founder and the most prominent member of the Half-Fast Walking Club, one of the best known freelance marching units 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 "lubricated" musical stroll down the parade route. Pete changed the name under pressure exerted by the parade organizers. On Mardi Gras Day 2007, Pete again joined his Half-Fast Walking Club, having missed the event in 2006 due to illness. 
     Fountain died of heart failure in his home town on August 6, 2016, at the age of eighty-six. He had suffered from heart problems and was in hospice care when he died.

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