Pete Fountain was known around the world for his music, but he was also Mr. New Orleans, so there was only one place you'd expect to find him on Mardi Gras: celebrating in the streets. His Half-Fast Walking Club became a fixture on Fat Tuesday.
"Their first walk was in 1961. Nobody had invited Pete to be in a krewe and he's a New Orleanian - a world famous jazz clarinetist but a New Orleanian to the core - and Mardi Gras is the ultimate day," said former WWL-TV reporter Bill Capo, who walked with Pete on Mardi Gras and covered the club for many years.
"Pete wanted not to sit on the sidelines, he wanted to be part of everything so he got together in 1961 and he and his his buddies, some of his family, they got the band and they just started going down St. Charles Avenue," Capo said.
"His wife Beverly said that that year the wives got to go along as well and the group was kind of cutting in and out of the Rex parade, which is something you don't do," Capo laughed. "They didn't care. Of course they were having few liquid libations. That was one of the hallmarks of the krewe. Pete had a grand time. He always did."
It started small that first year, but didn't take long to become a Mardi Gras tradition, with the club heading out every Fat Tuesday before the Rex parade. They begin their day at Commander's Palace and end at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter.
"Pete Fountain was just a lovable personality but it is the one organization where you have a big national celebrity, who's really at street level. he's not high on a float," said Carnival historian Errol Laborde, editor if New Orleans Magazine. "In the latter years, he rode on a flatbed truck but still not that far that you couldn't stick out your hand and shake hands, but I think that told a lot of the character of Pete Fountain that he was just one of the people down there."
Some of Pete's famous friends made the trip too, including singer and comedian Phil Harris and actor John Goodman.
"We used to stop at every place and drink, now we eat, so that's how much has changed," Fountain joked with Capo in the 1990s. But what never changed is the spirit of the Half-Fast Walking Club..
"It's now about 200 members. You've got people who have been parading there for two and three generations now. There's a few that have been walking ever since 1961," Capo said.
Now serving as captain, Fountain's son-in-law Benny Harrell keeps the club going full speed - or maybe just half-fast - into its next 60 years.
"He's safeguarding that tradition," Capo said. "To him, it's a family thing. his kids are part of it, so many of the kids are and to him it's keeping the tradition there."
"This will be a little bittersweet year because of course Pete died in 2016. The krewe has kept up the tradition and this year is a very special thing," said Capo. "They'll be celebrating as hard as they always do but it'll be with heavy hearts so when you're out there and see them, cheer them on."
Bill Capo will be covering Pete Fountain's Half-Fast Walking Club's 60th anniversary with live reports during Channel 4's Mardi Gras coverage beginning Tuesday at 6 a.m. on the Eyewitness Morning News on WWL-TV.