Pierre Dewey LaFontaine, Jr. (July 3, 1930 – August 6, 2016)
I’ve written before about my attempts at playing the clarinet while I was growing up, and how I was never very good even though I took lessons for years and occupied a chair in various school bands. It might tell you something about my skill level when I confess that one day – many years after I reached adulthood – I picked up a clarinet and tried to play. I was able to make it squeak and squawk but otherwise nothing much happened — because I’d forgotten how to read music.
I really don’t remember why I took up music in the first place, but I do have a couple of ideas why my instrument ended up being the clarinet. First, my Dad had played clarinet as a boy and I think we still had his old nickel-plated antique around, which would have appealed to my parents’ frugal, sensible side. I think they figured they could get me a newer model if I stuck with it — probably a wise precaution, considering my record.
Secondly, the “licorice stick” was probably chosen for me because my Dad always loved listening to clarinet music. Admittedly I never reached a skill level that would have been pleasant listening for anyone, even after they later bought me a new one, but I suppose he always hoped for the best. (Which might explain why my clarinet was later recycled to my little sister.)
Dad enjoyed any good clarinetist, but there was one guy he would always watch on TV whenever possible. My Dad traveled in his job, but if he was home on the evening of the Lawrence Welk Show, he’d always tune in because he thought Pete Fountain was just about the greatest thing around.
Pierre Dewey LaFontaine, Jr., aka Pete Fountain, was a semi-regular on the show in the late 1950’s and was always a favorite of my Dad’s. And although it didn’t occur to me at the time, as I look back I wonder whether Dad sort of identified with him. Not only had he too played the clarinet, but he even looked a little like Pete Fountain. In those days Pete sometimes wore horn-rimmed glasses like my Dad’s, and both occasionally sported facial hair. But the most obvious similarity was right in the middle of their faces — they both had that noble honker in the middle of their face.
Appearing on the Lawrence Welk Show was probably the highest profile thing Pete Fountain ever did nationally, but for many years he was a fixture in jazz. He was (and is) a talented instrumentalist, and even though he first gained notice as a member of the Dukes Of Dixieland, he’s always been at home in almost any kind of jazz, with countless best-selling albums. His highest charting single was the inspirational “A Closer Walk With Thee”, but most of his best-sellers were familiar songs straight from his native New Orleans, including “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” and “Basin Street Blues”.
Not surprisingly, his biggest impact has always been in his home city, where for years he even had his own night club. He continues to this day to be active in many celebrations surrounding Mardi Gras, and has reached the status of a beloved legend in that storied city.