Skip to main content

Keyboardist Michael Fonfara performs with Downchild Blues Band at the National Arts Centre for their 50th Anniversary on Nov. 29, 2019.Yannick Beauvalet

At a Downchild Blues Band rehearsal session in 2017, keyboardist Michael Fonfara showed up late and a little out of it. Taking position behind his instrument, he barely played as the veteran Canadian band worked to pull a new song together. “He was falling asleep behind the keyboard,” bassist Gary Kendall recalled.

At one point, Mr. Kendall missed a chord change. Mr. Fonfara, eyes closed, put up his hand, signalling that the bassist had messed up. “I’m trying hard to learn this song, really concentrating,” Mr. Kendall said. “But here’s Michael, asleep, and yet he knows what’s going on, on a song he’s never heard before, let alone played.”

Mr. Fonfara, a free spirit blessed with impeccable musicianship and who enjoyed associations with artists such as Lou Reed and an illustrious variety of rock/blues/R&B acts, died of cancer on Jan. 8. He was 74.

If his approach to rehearsals was relaxed, his playing on stage and in the studio was animated and colourful. Comfortable in a variety of stylistic settings, his career of more than five decades in Canada and the United States included a short-lived stint with the blues-rock pioneers the Electric Flag and membership in the Los Angeles-based R&B-rock supergroup Rhinoceros in the late 1960s.

In the 1970s, he served as the bandleader for art-rock enigma Lou Reed. From 1990 on, he was the man on piano and the Hammond B-3 organ for Canada’s electric-blues flag-bearers, Downchild.

Session work was steady for the classically trained musician. What his fingers could do is in evidence on recordings by the Everly Brothers, John Sebastian, Rough Trade and Foreigner.

Mr. Fonfara was the product of a musical era fuelled by intoxicants and enamoured by experimentation. He lived to play and played for a living, with little thought for tomorrow.

“I didn’t have a plan, and I don’t think Michael had a plan,” said Danny Weis, a prominent guitarist and close friend who often worked in tandem with Mr. Fonfara. “We just wanted to play music as long as we could.”

One of Mr. Fonfara’s final recordings was Downchild’s Live At The Toronto Jazz Festival, recorded at the band’s 50th anniversary concert in 2019, with special guest stars Dan Aykroyd and Paul Shaffer on hand. Recently, Mr. Fonfara worked on a number of albums by Hamilton rock musician and songwriter Chris Houston.

“He was in pain, but he told me he didn’t want to contemplate death,” said Mr. Houston, known for his work with the punk-rock band the Forgotten Rebels. “Michael just wanted to listen to the mixes of the record we were making. He lived for the next thing.”

Michael Fonfara was born in Stevensville, Ont., on Aug. 11, 1946. He was adopted by Kazamisz (Harry) Fonfara, an engineer, and Wanda Fonfara (née Kurgan), a homemaker. Raised in a staunch Roman Catholic environment, young Michael rose to the position of head altar boy before puberty dashed any hopes his parents had that their son would pursue a career in the church.

“During a slow dance with a girl, a priest told them they were too close, and that they needed to leave room for the Holy Ghost,” his wife, Avril Fonfara, said.

A musically inclined student with perfect pitch and passion for cello and piano, Mr. Fonfara was trained at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

His refined skills were put to rambunctious use in his late teens as the organ player in R&B-orientated rockers Jon and Lee & the Checkmates. A promotional bill showed the six-piece outfit to be unanimously in favour of mod trench coats, thoughtful poses and stylishly coiffed long hair.

Poster for Jon & Lee & the Checkmates (vocal group), c. 1964: Peter Hodgson, top, middle, (bass), Larry Leishman, bottom, right (guitar), Jeff Cutler, bottom, left, (drums), Mike Fonfara, wearing glasses at top, left, (organ), Lee Jackson, top, right, (vocal) and John Finley, bottom, middle, (vocal).Courtesy of Ken Will

The poster’s boast that the band had established “without any doubt the right to claim to be the number 1 R&B unit in Canada” was more or less verifiable.

In 1965, the same year they opened up for the Rolling Stones at Maple Leaf Gardens, the group appeared in front of more than 60,000 people in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square to help inaugurate the new City Hall building. Go-go dancers, civic pride and a version of James Brown’s Please Please Please excited the crowd to the point that mayor Philip Givens threatened to cut the concert short.

“We were stealing the show from Bobby Curtola, who was supposed to be the main act,” singer John Finley told the Hamilton Spectator recently. “People said they were starting to riot. It wasn’t a riot, it was just the girls going nuts and then the guys reacting to the girls.”

Teen idol Mr. Curtola attempted to grab Mr. Fonfara’s hands in order to prevent him from playing. The mayor did the same to the drummer, but was rapped across his knuckles with a drum stick for his trouble. The show went on.

Not fulfilling their potential, the Checkmates were finished by 1967. Mr. Fonfara briefly hooked up with future Blood, Sweat & Tears singer David Clayton-Thomas in New York, before finding a spot in Electric Flag, a horn-rock-and-soul adventure that featured drummer Buddy Miles and wunderkind Chicago guitarist Michael Bloomfield. Although all of the band members embraced a psychoactive lifestyle, it was Mr. Fonfara who was fired by manager Albert Grossman after a drug bust at the Tropicana Motel in Los Angeles.

Such was the incestuous music scene that when one jail cell door closed, another groovy career door would open. Mr. Fonfara joined Rhinoceros, a supergroup of young musicians created and curated by Elektra Records talent scout and Doors producer Paul Rothchild. Among the players were singer Mr. Finley and bassist Peter Hodgson from the Checkmates, along with former Iron Butterfly guitarist Mr. Weis.

Mr. Fonfara and Mr. Weis became fast friends, exploring the freedom of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon hippiedom and the wide-open music of the era. “It was magic,” said Mr. Weis, who with Mr. Fonfara co-wrote the band’s only hit, the funky instrumental Apricot Brandy.

Years later, Mr. Fonfara would tell yarn after yarn about that sunny psychedelic period: that he took karate lessons with actor Telly Savalas, that he babysat Frank Zappa’s child Moon Unit, that he rescued a passed-out Joe Cocker on the beach during a party at David Crosby’s house.

“Michael was a funny guy, and he was a storyteller,” Mr. Weis said. “Some of his stories are to be believed. Some of them, I’m not sure.”

After three albums, Rhinoceros was done. A number of the musicians (including Mr. Fonfara, Mr. Weis and Mr. Hodgson) decamped from Hollywood to Toronto, where they quickly reinvented themselves as Blackstone. The experiment in tripped-out blues-rock failed to take.

In 1974, Mr. Weis and Mr. Fonfara joined Canadians Whitey Glan (drums) and Prakash John (bass) in Lou Reed’s band for the recording of Sally Can’t Dance at New York’s Electric Lady Studio. “Lou was in the mood to make an R&B record,” Mr. Fonfara told Reed biographer Anthony DeCurtis. “He wanted to be a Lou Reed version of James Brown.”

The problem was, if Sally couldn’t dance, neither could Mr. Reed. Not blessed with innate R&B abilities, Mr. Reed asked Mr. Fonfara to be his musical director, a job title the keyboardist would hold for the next six years. “Lou was brilliant with lyrics and could write songs, but he didn’t know how to do rhythm and blues at all,” Mr. Fonfara recalled in Mr. DeCurtis’s Lou Reed: A Life. “It was up to [the band] to more or less take the lyrics and put them with songs that were more like R&B than the rock ‘n’ roll style he was used to doing.”

Mr. Reed’s next musical detour would be an even more radical departure. Metal Machine Music (1975) was an accurately titled double album of modulated guitar feedback and distorted electric effects.

“We went up into this hotel room, and Lou just filled the room with Marshall amps,” Mr. Fonfara told journalist Damien Love. “He put them all in series together, turned them all up to 11, put the mics on, brought his guitar in, and then he just whacked it a bunch of times until it started to feedback horribly. And then we all ran out of the room and shut the door.”

When the tape ran out, it was Mr. Fonfara’s job to turn everything off. “Lou would make me go back into the room, because it was so loud” Mr. Fonfara said recently. “He told me he had to protect his ears.”

Mr. Fonfara’s last album with Mr. Reed was 1980′s Growing Up in Public, recorded at Beatles producer George Martin’s state-of-the-art AIR Studios in Montserrat. In the DeCurtis book, Mr. Fonfara’s amicable split with Mr. Reed is recounted.

“I can’t have another drink or do another shot of speed,” Mr. Reed told Mr. Fonfara. “My doctor says my liver is going to explode. So I’m calling the band off. I’m disbanding it temporarily. I’ll call you if I ever get it back together again.”

Mr. Fonfara never got that call, but his career continued. He is credited as adding “keyboard textures” to the 1981 hit single Urgent by the arena-rock band Foreigner. Mr. Fonfara was recruited by legendary producer Robert (Mutt) Lange to play the Yamaha GX-1, an analogue polyphonic synthesizer dubbed the Dream Machine because of its three keyboards and unique sonic possibilities.

In the 1980s, Mr. Fonfara returned to Toronto, where he joined Mr. John’s R&B band the Lincolns. In 1990, he signed up with Downchild. Four times in the 2000s he received the Maple Blues Award as piano/keyboard player of the year.

When he wasn’t playing music or reading sci-fi novels, Mr. Fonfara completed Sudoku number puzzles. Late in life, he enjoyed a laid back Saturday afternoon gig with R&B singer Johnny Wright at the east-end Toronto neighbourhood restaurant Outriggers.

At one point he had separated from his second wife, Avril Fonfara. “We got back together, though, and had a love affair over the last few years,” the Dublin-born former nurse and model said. “It was quite unexpected, and I’m thankful I was with him at the end.”

Two days after the musician died, his wife received a phone call from her husband’s friend and former bandmate Mr. Hodgson. “He said he had something to give me from Michael, and he brought me a bouquet of white roses and pale hyacinth lilacs.”

Before he died, Mr. Fonfara had prearranged the floral delivery.

Michael Fonfara leaves his wife, Avril; daughters, Ciara and Ashley; and grandchildren, Brooklyn, Camden, Jamie and Jaxon.