Pete Fountain gave New Orleans one of its best puns. Each Mardi Gras revelers would snicker at the mention of Fountain’s walking group, the Half-Fast Marching Club. While they laughed at the name they awed at the originator, Fountain, who was one the great musicians from a town that has given the world many. (Including Louis Armstrong to whom the annual festival in his name was being celebrated on the day that Fountain died.)
In his latter years, there were generally two occasions where fans could see Fountain play. One was if they spotted his Half-Fast group, populated with men wearing bright colored suits and hats (a different color each year), winding its way along St. Charles Avenue or refreshing outside its home base at the Monteleone Hotel. The other was at the Jazz Fest, where Fountain and band performed practically every year through 2013. At both occasions, protégé Tim Laughlin would be at his side giving another voice to Fountain’s clarinet.
In earlier years, Fountain walked with the Half-Fast guys somewhere in the crowd; later he rode on a truck with the band surrounding him like bodyguards – Laughlin being the first line of defense. The scene was similar on the Economy Hall stage at the Jazz Fest. Each year people wanted one more chance to hear the aging Fountain; and each following year he was back to give yet another chance.
Fountain lived the best of both worlds; a star of global reputation but New Orleans as his home base. The early Lawrence Welk TV show gave him a national audience as one of the boys in the band and as a star he would have occasional gigs on variety shows including Johnny Carson’s "The Tonight Show." But home was where his heart was – in the city and on the gulf coast.
Fountain won the gold with his 1960 recording of “A Closer Walk With Thee,” a moving piece of music in itself that was made greater when he melded a few bars of “Amazing Grace” into the music.
For all of his talent as a musician he is also remembered as a nice, friendly man. He was something very special but remained as one of us. I hope “A Closer Walk” will be reverberating from all stages where clarinets sing. A friend, who was a fan, wrote to tell me that when Fountain’s music plays he will be walking in half steps.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.