In 2000, Pete Fountain came up with a novel — or was it navel? — way to commemorate his 70th birthday: He got a tattoo of an owl yanking a snake out of his belly button.
Weeks later, he proudly showed off his ink at a Biloxi casino following a performance by his buddy Don Rickles. Grinning broadly, Fountain unbuttoned his shirt right there amid the slot machines as his wife, Beverly, rolled her eyes.
That wasn't the first, or last, time Beverly rolled her eyes during nearly 65 years of marriage to the famed, fun-loving New Orleans jazz clarinetist, who died Aug. 6 at age 86. Mischief was his middle name.
A photo taken from the back of the bandstand during Fountain’s late-1950s tenure with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra is telling. Sheet music is visible on every music stand except the one in front of Fountain.
On his is a copy of Playboy.
By the time I met him in the 1990s, he was already watering down the white wine he sipped onstage with Perrier. Weekends lost to the “Jack Daniels flu” were a thing of the past.
In his rowdier years — i.e., most of the 1960s and '70s — he likely wasn’t the easiest guy to be around, or be married to. His beloved Beverly, he readily admitted, put up with a lot. “She raised me,” he liked to say. “I was her oldest boy. “
He mellowed with age into an unfailingly funny, sweet and cheerful grandfather who doted on his grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even other people's kids. At his 80th birthday party at Rock 'n' Bowl in 2010 — which featured a 12-foot-long clarinet cake — he kissed my then-4-month-old son, Sam, on the head.
Right up until the end, even as his body betrayed him, he sustained the mischievous twinkle in his eyes. It was still there when I last saw him, extremely frail but fully engaged, at Allen Toussaint’s memorial service at the Orpheum Theater in November.
That the St. Louis Cathedral will on Wednesday host Fountain's funeral is fitting: One of New Orleans’ most iconic musicians warrants the city’s most iconic sanctuary.
Visitation will be from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Following 30 minutes of remembrances and eulogies, a Mass will begin at noon. Afterward, a second-line procession will end at Hotel Monteleone, where Fountain's Half-Fast Walking Club concluded its annual Mardi Gras morning stroll for decades.
Additionally, on Monday at 7 p.m., WYES-TV/Channel 12 will rebroadcast the intimate 1980 documentary “Pete!" It will air again on Aug. 20 at 6 p.m. and Aug. 21 at 7 p.m.
Fountain was, in many respects, the Harry Connick Jr. of his day: A talented instrumentalist whose unpretentious, unfiltered, naturally N’Awlins personality played well on television, helping catapult him to national fame.
But Fountain wasn’t driven by the same raw ambition as Connick. If so, he might have stayed in Los Angeles after his two-year stint on “The Lawrence Welk Show” ended in 1959. Or maybe, like Connick, Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis, he would have moved to New York.
Pete Fountain, the iconic traditional jazz clarinetist whose sweet sound and merry spirit pe…
Instead, he followed the Fats Domino model and resolved to make New Orleans his permanent home, career considerations be damned.
In 1960, he opened the first of his nightclubs at 800 Bourbon St. The building is now home to the gay dance club Oz. But Fountain’s name is still tiled into the sidewalk outside, a permanent reminder of when he made Bourbon Street swing.
Fountain spent 17 years on Bourbon Street, performing up to five nights a week. After he moved into Pete Fountain’s French Quarter Inn at 231 Bourbon St., ads heralded “New Orleans’ Newest and Smartest Jazz Club.”
In their glory years, he and partner-in-crime Al Hirt lived large, laughed loud and drank a whole lot. But when it came time to toot — at his club, during a Super Bowl halftime show, at the White House, wherever — Fountain inevitably delivered. He could make a clarinet sing with a deep, rich, bluesy tone all his own.
Styles may change — in a publicity photo from the 1970s, he rocks a toupee, collars the size of eagle wings, and a scarf — but his sound was timeless.
He left Bourbon Street and opened a Las Vegas-style lounge in the Hilton New Orleans Riverside in 1977. In the backstage office before show time, he’d warm up the wood of his clarinet beneath a desk lamp as he and his band members loosened up with ribald jokes.
Before his final performance at the club, in 2003, someone covered up a display of risqué photos hanging near the stage steps because Rev. Frank Coco, the chaplain for the Half-Fast Walking Club and an amateur clarinetist, was coming by to sit in. Fountain, still the lovably naughty schoolboy, didn’t want to jeopardize his shot at salvation by offending a priest.
A video tribute screened that night featured footage of Dolly Parton smooching Fountain’s bald head. In the same video, President Bill Clinton testified that the sound of Pete’s clarinet is “one of the joys of American music.”
Onstage for the last time at the Hilton, Fountain quipped, “It’s been 26 years here. It went by half-fast, and so did my liver.”
Through it all, he kept tootin’ as the ever-jovial embodiment of New Orleans. Over the past decade, he personified his hometown in another way: by battling back from the brink.
The stress and heartache that followed in Hurricane Katrina’s wake likely contributed to a succession of health setbacks: bypass surgery, strokes, shingles, pneumonia.
His joie de vivre and sense of humor, though tested, endured. After his weight dropped from 240 pounds to 160, he joked that the owl tattoo on his stomach “is a lot smaller now.”
The strokes were especially frustrating. His quick wit and distinctly New Orleans dialect — “God” was always “Gawd,” and “them” was “dem” in Pete’s phrasing — didn’t flow as effortlessly anymore.
"I can play, but I can't talk," he said in 2008. "I never could talk before, so it's work for me. I'm tellin' ya, this stroke is a pain in the butt. That's what happens when you get old."
That spring, I accompanied him to a photo shoot in the French Quarter. Tourists and locals alike fawned over him, star-struck. He’d brought along a LeBlanc clarinet, the one he grabbed as he fled his massive vacation home in Bay St. Louis hours before Katrina reduced it to kindling. He had planned to pose with the instrument, not play it.
But trombonist Glen David Andrews happened to be leading a brass band on the standard “High Society” near the Cabildo. Fountain couldn’t resist joining in.
He finally set down his clarinet for good after the 2013 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He was content to live quietly, spending most of his time at home in the Lake Vista neighborhood, where generations of kids knew him as “Mr. Pete.”
He’d venture out for breakfast, and for meetings of the Half-Fast Walking Club, which will apparently continue to walk — not march — on Mardi Gras in his honor. In the summer of 2015, he and 21 members of his family celebrated his 85th birthday with brunch at Antoine’s.
A couple years ago, he got hold of a trove of old photographs he thought were lost to Katrina. He started mailing out copies to friends and acquaintances.
One package I received contained a classic shot of a stout, scowling Fountain in a sleeveless denim jacket straddling a motorcycle. He looked more like a gang leader than a grandpa.
Mailing those photos may have been Pete’s way of reminding people about his storied past.
He needn’t have worried. Pete Fountain was unforgettable.
One of the greats has left us...