The Times-Picayune Covers 175 Years of New Orleans History
Trumpeter Al Hirt and clarinetist Pete Fountain, one bearded, the other bald, personified good-time New Orleans jazz for decades. Friends and frequent collaborators, they released popular recordings, appeared on national TV and presided over Bourbon Street nightclubs bearing their names.
Nicknamed "Jumbo," Hirt embodied the city’s rollicking spirit in his performances and voracious appetites. From 1962 to 1983, he operated the Al Hirt Club on Bourbon. He recorded more than 50 albums. He won a Grammy Award in 1964 for his recording of the Allen Toussaint-penned instrumental "Java," which ascended to No. 4 on the pop charts. Other hits included "Sugar Lips" and "Cotton Candy."
He briefly hosted his own TV show on CBS. He performed for six presidents, for Princess Grace in Monaco, and for Pope John Paul II at the University of New Orleans in 1987.
His artistic success contrasted with turbulence in other areas of his life. Three of his four marriages failed, and unsuccessful business deals in the 1970s and ’80s led to lawsuits. He died of liver failure in 1999 at age 76.
The son of a Dixie beer truck driver, Fountain emerged as the most famous ambassador of traditional Dixieland jazz. In the late 1950s, two years as the featured soloist on "The Lawrence Welk Show" made him a star. The 1959 album "Pete Fountain’s New Orleans" contains what is arguably the definitive "A Closer Walk," marked by his impeccably rich clarinet tone. His 59 appearances on "The Tonight Show" during the Johnny Carson era fueled six-figure sales of his albums.
Indicative of his unofficial status as "Mr. New Orleans," Fountain has navigated the downtown parade route at the head of his Half-Fast Walking Club on nearly every Mardi Gras morning since 1960.
Also in 1960, he opened his first Bourbon Street nightclub. From 1977 to 2003, he was the featured act at another club in the Hilton Riverside. After closing it, he accepted a regular gig at a casino near his 10,000-square-foot weekend home in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Hurricane Katrina’s tidal surge obliterated that home and its collection of memorabilia. Two strokes suffered since the storm have made speaking difficult for him. But Fountain can still "toot" on the clarinet, and, at 81, plans to continue as long as he is able.
By Keith Spera, The Times-Picayune The Times-Picayune