Pete Fountain, his passing and his final procession
On August 6, 2016, a part of New Orleans’ musical soul died.
That’s the day legendary musician Pete Fountain was called home. Though he had struggled for over a decade with health issues, his passing was unexpected. And it sent shock waves throughout the community.
In a city filled with musicians, Fountain was considered one of its greatest. The New Orleans ambassador shared his gifts with presidents and the Pope, with Johnny Carson and Lawrence Welk, and in performances around the globe.
His life and his legacy were celebrated in a funeral mass on August 17 in St. Louis Cathedral, in the heart of the French Quarter.
Just outside the Cathedral’s doors, massive crowds gathered around the horse drawn hearse carriage, awaiting the end of the mass and the beginning of the procession—an authentic New Orleans second line that would parade through the streets of the Quarter to the Monteleone Hotel on Royal Street.
As the service concluded and the casket was placed respectfully inside the carriage hearse, Fountain’s family and close friends boarded a nearby horse drawn carriage which would follow the first.
And then the merriment began.
Now, if you’re not from around here, you may wonder how, when someone passes, New Orleanians can dance and sing and parade through the streets carrying festive umbrellas adorned with sequins and lace, bobbing to the beat of the music. You may wonder how in times of darkness and despair, we find the light.
The answer is simply this: when you live in New Orleans, every day of life is a celebration in and of itself. You’ll find the proof in the daily revelry and in the hundreds of festivals celebrating everything from alligators to zydeco, including seafood, gumbo, jazz, craft beer, books, films and more. Heck, someday we’ll probably have a Festival Fest. Just because.
If you haven’t visited, chances are you won’t quite get it. But once you’ve set foot in the Crescent City, you can’t deny it. Because the magic of New Orleans seeps into your soul, and brings to life passions that you didn’t yet know existed, creating a yearning to become a permanent part of the culture that is unlike any other in the world.
It’s the people, the passions, the music, the fare, the southern hospitality that makes you feel like you’re one of us. And when you’re here, you are. And when you leave, you still are. And the joie de vivre that is so deeply rooted within our city and its people becomes part of you forever.
On August 17, 2016, a part of New Orleans’ musical soul was reborn.
It came to life through the eyes and the hearts of countless awestruck people who lined the streets of the French Quarter to witness an unforgettable part of New Orleans history in the making. And it was ignited by the many more who spontaneously joined in the procession along the way. It was a fitting tribute to the city’s Clarinet Prince.
That rebirth exploded with each note played by the musicians performing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and with every single step of the thousands who were dancing and singing in the second line procession. They were old and young, locals and tourists, as diverse a crowd as you’ll ever see, and they came together to celebrate the life and legend that was Pete Fountain.
And I was honored to be in that number.
Highlights from the funeral mass:
Lawrence Welk, Jr., son of the famed bandleader and television host, was among those who paid tribute to Fountain during the funeral mass. He told the tale of his first encounter with Fountain, backstage at one of the jazz clarinetist’s performances. The star struck 16-year-old started to introduce himself to the musician, only to be interrupted before he was able to add the “Junior” part of his name.
“Kid, if you’re Lawrence Welk, I’m Abraham Lincoln,” said Fountain.
Hello, Mr. President.
Long time WYES arts and entertainment producer and host Peggy Scott Laborde shared delightful tidbits from her many interviews with Fountain and reminisced about his passion for Bourbon—both the street and the beverage, she clarified. The congregation was amused.
The Advocate’s entertainment writer Keith Spera fondly recalled the time he unexpectedly encountered Fountain in a casino, at which time the musician was excited to share his new tattoo. He pulled open his shirt to reveal an owl pulling a snake out of his navel. As Spera chuckled, Fountain’s wife of nearly 65 years, Beverly, rolled her eyes. We learned that such was a frequent reaction to her mischievous husband’s entertaining antics.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told of childhood memories and yearning to go see “Mr. Pete’s Half Ass Club.” His mother was quick to advise that it was the Half Fast Walking Club. They just walk slowly, she advised her son.
Fountain’s son-in law and manager Benny Harrell reminisced about how humble his father-in-law was, saying that the down-to-earth musician would always say that he never aspired to be at anyone else’s level.
“I prefer to drag them down to mine,” Fountain would joke.
He also shared that Fountain’s grandchildren considered him the coolest grandfather in the world, alluding to an incident that may have included a trip to the Playboy Mansion with two of his grandsons.
While those who paid homage to Mr. Fountain prompted countless laughs, it was Irma Thomas’s soul stirring rendition of “Precious Lord” that brought many to tears.
The recessional included Tim Laughlin’s rendition of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” the song for which Fountain was best known and most celebrated.