Longtime Lou Reed keyboardist Michael Fonfara died in a Toronto hospital on Friday (Jan. 8) at age 74 of cancer. The Stevensville, Ontario-born keyboard player’s death was confirmed by his publicist, who said Fonfara had battled cancer for two years. Fonfara is best known for his decade-long run performing with late punk progenitor Reed on the albums Rock and Roll Heart (1976), Street Hassle (1978), Live: Take No Prisoners (1978), The Bells (1979) and 1980’s Growing Up in Public, which he co-wrote and co-produced with Reed.
“It is with heavy hearts that we sadly announce the passing of our dear friend and long-time bandmate, Michael Fonfara,” read a statement from his longtime bandmates in The Downchild Blues Band. “He was an incredible musician, a gentle soul and we were honoured to share the stage with him every time we performed. He will be deeply missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family. There will be a celebration of life once we are all safely able to get together.”
In a lengthy, eclectic career that spanned more than 50 years, Fonfara performed with the 1960s rock bands The Electric Flag and Rhinoceros, Blackstone and Rough Trade, as well as adding “keyboard textures” on Foreigner’s multi-platinum 1981 4 album on the No. 4 hit “Urgent” and the track “Girl on the Moon.” Fonfara also recorded with the Everly Brothers, Grievous Angels, Cameo Blues Band and many others in a lauded career that included a 2000 Maple Blues Award honor for piano/keyboard player of the year.
Fonfara’s final recording was Downchild’s Live at the Toronto Jazz Festival 50th anniversary performance in 2019, which featured guest appearances from Dan Akroyd, Paul Shaffer, Kenny Neal, Gene Taylor, Erja Lyytinen and David Wilcox; Downchild was the inspiration for Akroyd and late comedy partner John Belushi’s The Blues Brothers.
“He’s the best musician I’ve ever worked with,” said Downchild leader and co-founder Donnie Walsh in a statement, with bassist Gary Kendall adding, “Yesterday we lost a brother, a band mate, a co-writer and a dear friend. If you met him, you loved him. A creative genius.”
Check out a performance by the Downchild Blues Band and Fonfara rocking the Hammond B3 organ below.