Michael Fonfara, the keyboardist best known for his tenure alongside Lou Reed, has died at the age of 74.
The Canadian musician passed away in a Toronto hospital on Jan. 8, the tragic culmination of a two-year battle with cancer. The keyboardist’s death was confirmed by his publicist.
Between 1974 and 1980, Fonfara played on a total of six Lou Reed albums: Sally Can’t Dance, Rock and Roll Heart, Coney Island Baby, Street Hassle, The Bells and Growing Up in Public. His involvement increased on the latter two releases, as he executive produced The Bells and co-wrote and co-produced Growing Up in Public.
Beyond working together, Fonfara and Reed were also close friends. “Lou and I used to do quite a bit of hanging for a while. I lived about two blocks away from Lou on the Lower West Side,” the keyboardist recalled during a conversation with author Damien Love. “He’d call me up at three in the morning, ‘Michael, get over here…’ And I’d go over, and it would turn out all he wanted to do was have a glass of Scotch and listen to some music and sit and blather for a while.”
The two also discovered a common affinity for pinball, which Fonfara taught Reed to play. “I taught Lou how to play pinball properly,” the musician explained. “He didn’t know how to play pinball very well, and we’d go out to arcades, and he’d watch me and say, ‘How are you doing this?’ I’d say, ‘Well, you gotta work both flippers, not just one at a time…’ And we worked on it until he got to be a bit of a pinball wizard, we were going crazy with it.”
Aside from his work with Reed, Fonfara was a longtime member of the Canadian blues group Downchild.
“It is with heavy hearts that we sadly announce the passing of our dear friend and long-time bandmate, Michael Fonfara,” reads a message posted to the Downchild Facebook page. “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.”
Fonfara’s long and eclectic career included collaborations with many other recognizable artists, including the Everly Brothers, Tycoon, Rhinoceros, Electric Flag and the Lincolns. The keyboardist also contributed to Foreigner’s chart-topping 1981 hit “Urgent.”
Fonfara’s final recording was at Downchild’s Live At The Toronto Jazz Festival, recorded as part of the group’s 50th Anniversary celebration in 2019. The event included guest appearances by former Late Show band leader Paul Shaffer, folk singer David Wilcox, blues guitarist Kenny Neal and comedian Dan Aykroyd – who famously modeled the Blues Brothers off of Downchild.