RIP: Keyboard Maestro Michael Fonfara
The veteran Toronto musician passed away on Friday, at age 74. His impressive resume spans six decades and is as musically diverse as any in Canadian music. His death has sparked an outpouring of affection, confirming the enormous respect of his musical peers, and we have many of their comments here.
By Kerry Doole
Toronto-based keyboardist, songwriter, arranger, and producer Michael Fonfara died on Jan. 8, at age 74, from complications brought on by a lengthy bout with prostate cancer.
He enjoyed a fascinating and accomplished career as a professional musician over the course of six decades. From '60s R&B and underground blues-rock in such outfits as Jon and Lee and The Checkmates, The Electric Flag, and Rhinoceros, Fonfara went on to a long stint with Lou Reed and then the Downchild Blues Band, plus work with Rough Trade, Foreigner, The Lincolns, reggae pioneers Sly and Robbie, and more. It is fair to claim his resume is as musically diverse as any in Canadian music.
He has perhaps been something of an unsung hero, but the huge outpouring of affection as news of his passing spread on social media over the weekend affirms that he was held in enormous respect by his musical peers and all who came in contact with him. That is evident in the tributes we have included later in this obituary feature, taken from social media or gathered by our reaching out to Fonfara's comrades.
Born and raised in Fort Erie, Ontario, Fonfara studied classical piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music, where he reportedly studied under a former teacher of Glenn Gould, prior to starting to gig on the busy Toronto scene.
That started in 1963, when he joined the Toronto band, Lee Jackson & The Checkmates, renamed Jon and Lee & The Checkmates soon afterwards. A popular group on the burgeoning Toronto R&B scene, they broke up in Sept. 1967, with just one single to their name.
The band’s vocalist, legendary soul singer John Finley, sent this reminiscence to FYI: “I met Michael Fonfara in November 1963. Larry Leishman introduced us at the Gold Star Hamburger, located 2 blocks north of Steeles and Yonge in northernmost Willowdale where Larry lived. I did not know then that Michael and I would be be starting a lifelong musical and personal journey together 4 months later in March 64, when I joined the Checkmates.”
In 1999, Fonfara, Peter Hodgson and Larry Leishman reformed The Checkmates for live dates in Toronto. In 2005, John Finley rejoined the band and the group released their debut album in 2006.
After The Checkmates first folded, Fonfara worked briefly with David Clayton-Thomas (later of Blood, Sweat and Tears fame), then, in late 1967, he toured and recorded briefly with US blues-rock innovators The Electric Flag. That band featured Buddy Miles and Michael Bloomfield, with Fonfara replacing keyboardist and founding Electric Flag member Barry Goldberg. His playing is featured on the 1968 album A Long Time Comin'.
Next stop was Rhinoceros, a new group put together by and signed to Elektra Records that featured both Canadian and US players. On vocals was John Finley, Fonfara's bandmate from The Checkmates, while former Iron Butterfly guitarist Danny Weis was another original member. The group went through many personnel changes and released three albums, a self-titled debut (1968), Satin Chickens (1969), and Better Times Are Coming (1970), then disbanded in 1971.
In 2009, Rhinoceros reunited for their first show together in 36 years, at the Kitchener Blues Festival. Original members John Finley, Alan Gerber, Danny Weis, Michael Fonfara and Peter Hodgson were joined by Toronto players Mike Sloski (drums) and Bernie LaBarge (guitar). Check out that show's version of the classic Apricot Brandy here.
That track is a favourite of another Canadian keyboard ace, Paul Shaffer. Contacted by FYI yesterday, Shaffer was effusive in his praise of Fonfara. “Michael was an early inspiration of mine, since I saw him at the Hawks Nest teen nightclub in Toronto in about 1966, with Jon and Lee and The Checkmates," recalls Shaffer.
"I never forgot it. I got to tell Michael that when we played side by side a few summers ago. I sat in on his gig with the Downchild Blues Band when they played outdoors on Bloor Street at Toronto Jazzfest. He was sweet as pie, and a gas on organ! I asked him about the funk instrumental Apricot Brandy, which he co-wrote with Danny Weis and which has become an R&B standard. 'How do you play it right?,' I wanted to know. A few weeks later, he emailed me my answer in a video of him playing it, breaking it down for me. Sometimes, you meet your heroes and they’re princes. Thanks, Michael. Shred in peace."
Shaffer and his band would reprise Apricot Brandy, Rhinoceros' best-known song, on some of their Tonight Show With David Letterman gigs, and reports suggest Fonfara was pleased at the subsequent royalty cheques.
In 1971, after the breakup of Rhinoceros, John Finley, Michael Fonfara, Peter Hodgson, Danny Weis and Larry Leishman formed a new group called Blackstone. They recorded an album for Canadian label GRT, On the Line, produced by Paul Rothchild, but it was not well-received upon its 1973 release, and the members went their separate ways.
Reportedly based on his work on an Everly Brothers album, Fonfara was then recruited by Lou Reed to work on the singer’s 1974 album Sally Can’t Dance, one that became Reed's most successful record. That was the beginning of a long and successful partnership, as for the rest of the '70s. Fonfara served as Reed’s go-to studio and touring keyboardist. He was featured on eight more Reed albums, including 1976’s Rock and Roll Heart, 1978’s Street Hassle and Live: Take No Prisoners, 1979’s The Bells and 1980’s Growing Up in Public. On that latter album, Fonfara is credited as co-writer and co-producer alongside Reed.
In 1976, Fonfara joined Toronto-based band Rough Trade, the controversial Toronto-based band headed by Carole Pope and Kevan Staples that would later go onto significant commercial success. His stint with the band was brief (he left in 1977), but he contributed significantly to Rough Trade’s debut album, Rough Trade Live, billed as the first direct to disc rock album.
Carole Pope tells FYI that "Michael was a phenomenal keyboard player and great personality. Kevan and I were privileged to work with him on our Direct to disc album and he was part of the band during our early gigs in New York. We met Lou Reed through him."
Fonfara continued to record and tour with Lou Reed, and from the late '70s to 1981, he was a member of the New York City-based pop-rock group Tycoon, which released a self-titled album on Arista in 1979.
As a session musician, Fonfara played on the hit Foreigner album, Foreigner 4 (1981), which hit number 1 on Billboard and was certified 6x platinum, while its smash hit single Urgent reached #4 in the US and #1 in Canada. The song was reprised on the 1982 Best Of album Records.
In the 1980s, Fonfara began working regularly with the Canadian R&B band The Lincolns. That group had been founded by Prakash John, with whom Fonfara had first played in a later version of Blackstone in 1973, and later, when both were playing and recording with Lou Reed during the balance of the 1970s. He is featured on the 1983 Lincolns album, Take One, released by Attic.
Fonfara joined Canada's premiere blues band, The Downchild Blues Band, in 1990. His versatile and soulful playing made him a perfect fit, and he remained a member for the next three decades. His potent instrumental contributions to Downchild were often recognised by the Maple Blues Awards, with Fonfara winning the award for piano/keyboard player of the year in 2000, 2004, 2007 and 2009. He was also nominated for the MBA's Blues With A Feeling lifetime achievement award in 2008, 2009, and again in 2020. He was also a regular member of the all-star Maple Blues Band that performed annually at the MBAs.
One of Fonfara's last recordings was Downchild's Live At The Toronto Jazz Festival album, recorded to mark the group's 50th anniversary in 2019 and released in August 2020.
As well as his Downchild duties, from 2000 on, Fonfara was in demand as a keyboardist for a large number of blues albums, including releases by Snooky Pryor and Mel Brown, the Northern Blues Gospel Allstars, Cameo Blues Band, Brian Blain, Sam Myers, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Kevin Mark, Jack DeKeyzer, and others.
A man who clearly loved playing music live in a wide variety of settings, Michael Fonfara was a regular fixture in Toronto music clubs, accompanying such artists as Johnny Wright, Robin Banks, Jordan John, Bentroots, and many more. He also made plenty of friends in the Hamilton music community. Those he played and/or recorded with there included musical mavericks Chris Houston and Edgar Breau (Simply Saucer), Teenage Head's Gord Lewis, Harrison Kennedy, Trickbag, and Lori Yates.
Lou Molinaro, co-owner of Hamilton rock club This Ain't Hollywood, recalls one memorable gig at the venue: "Chris Houston and Gord Lewis opened up a show for [English rocker and one-time Sex Pistol Glen Matlock), and Michael showed up to play keyboards for their performance. During their set, they asked Mickey [DeSadist, of Forgotten Rebels fame] to come up and do the Lou Reed classic, Satellite of Love. Great memories!" Giving that moment extra resonance is the fact that Fonfara would have played that song in concert while touring with Lou Reed.
Leading off the many tributes to Fonfara was this Facebook post from Downchild bassist Gary Kendall: "Michael Fonfara 1946-2021: I`ve heard [Downchild leader] Donnie Walsh say many times 'He`s the best musician I've ever worked with.' I echo those words. Yesterday we lost a brother, a band mate, a co-writer, and a dear friend. His important role away from the music business was as a husband, father and grandfather. If you met him, you loved him. A creative genius and a band leader's worst nightmare. I was very fortunate to share space with him in recording studios, big stages, small stages, vans, cars, planes, hotels and restaurants. Fonf has left us but we'll continue to play music that he wrote, arranged or just made better by his presence. Thanks for the memories, see you on the other side."
John Finley shared this lovely eulogy to his musical comrade and close friend with FYI: “My memories are much more than musical (though 65 years of music shared has been vast); his tremendous humor, intelligence and sweet sweet kindness are with me always. We had a deeply intimate friendship; I truly & totally trusted him with my heart, my soul and my musical life. We shared the ups and downs, the joys and tears, secrets and significant acclaim.
"Ah but the HUMOR: snuffunderwithunderbumbles, Count Rabbit, Rabbit, Sherman the Boy Brain, Rock Nogginoff or just Rock, the Ostrich and so many other inside characters that we in the Checkmates and Rhinoceros knew....oh, the snuffling beast that he was! Oh, and the seeming tiny head with big horn rim glasses peeking over the HUGE C3 (NOT B3...LOL). This is what I cherish in memory as much as anything.....he was Family, he was Fun and it was our good and great fortune to have been blessed with Michael Fonfara in our lives, in my life. I love you forever, my fallen brother!"
Colin James posted this on Facebook: "Sad news today. The talented Michael Fonfara, long time keyboardist for Downchild Blues Band, has passed. I have had the good fortune of joining them on stage a number of times over the years and have always enjoyed his stage presence, energy, and sense of humour. Sending all my love to his family, and to all of the members and families of Downchild Blues Band."
Blues singer/songwriter and Toronto Blues Society stalwart Brian Blain (to FYI) : "First thing I remember about Michael (and we played and recorded together many times) was that whenever I got him to join us for the Campfire Jam at the Old Mill in Toronto, there would always be a call or note the next day from one of the other players thanking me and saying what a pleasure/honour it was to play with Fonf. It was always a pleasure to play with Fonf."
Toronto blues scene veteran and radio host Danny Marks (on Facebook): "Michael Fonfara, aka Rabbit or Fonf, never liked to rehearse too much for the Maple Blues Awards. While the rest of the band were learning their parts and studying their charts, Fonf would be AWOL. Maybe just out having a smoke. However, come downbeat, there would be Michael, beaming from behind the keys. When it was time to back you up, he seemed to know your song better than all of 'em. That's saying a lot. Gary Kendall leads the MBA Band with a strong hand. They are all excellent musicians. We know Michael Fonfara's storied history and his golden reputation as a musician, a prodigy. Always friendly, always kind, sometimes late, but always great."
Jazz impresario/radio host Jaymz Bee (to FYI): "Mike was the sweetest man and never said a bad word about anybody. The only thing wicked about him were his keyboard chops!"
Award-winning Hamilton blues singer/songwriter Harrison Kennedy (to FYI): "What a loss, I will miss his R&B grooves behind me. More than that I miss him...rest in the key of heaven my friend."
Grievous Angels, the folk band headed by Charlie Angus (on Facebook): "We are heartbroken to hear of the passing of blues legend Michael Fonfara. He produced our 22 Trailer Park album in 1999. Michael taught us so much about working in the studio and putting songs together. He made recording an adventure."
Edgar Breau, leader of Simply Saucer (on Facebook): "So sad to hear of Michael’s passing away. Chris Houston showed up with Mr. Fonfara on a cold night last year at Mike Birthelmer’s studio in Hamilton and I was lucky enough to have him play keyboards on a couple of my new recordings. We’ve lost a musical legend and a wonderful man. Rest In Peace."
Lou Molinaro (on Facebook): "I first met Michael when I managed the Corktown (thank you Chris Houston). Years later, Michael played This Ain't Hollywood a bunch of times. He was such a sweet guy. He never turned his back on sharing stories from his career. Great tales from The Checkmates, Electric Flag, Rhinoceros, and of course Lou Reed. An incredible keyboard player with quite a legacy. A real Canadian music legend."
Michael Fonfara is survived by his wife Avril, daughters Ciara and Ashley, grandchildren Brooklyn, Camden, Jamie and Jaxon.
Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Toronto Blues Society, Gary Kendall, Eric Alper
Below is some never before seen footage of Downchild performing the song It’s A Matter of Time at the group's 50th Anniversary kickoff party at the 2019 Toronto Jazz Festival. Our thanks to the band's manager, Todd Littlefield, for this clip.