Lou Reed’s ’70s keyboardist Michael Fonfara dies aged 74

Fonfara played on nine of Reed's albums, and co-wrote and co-produced 1980's 'Growing Up In Public'

Michael Fonfara, best known as the late Lou Reed‘s longtime keyboardist and member of Downchild Blues Band, died aged 74 in Toronto last week after a two year battle with cancer.

The musician’s publicist Eric Alper confirmed the news to CBC News today (January 10).

The Canadian keyboardist was born in Stevensville, Ontario in 1946, and began his musical career in 1963 with early R&B outfit Jon and Lee & The Checkmates. Following that band’s dissolution, he toured and recorded with Electric Flag in the late 1960s and was chosen to be part of the Elektra Records “supergroup” Rhinoceros for three albums, co-writing their 1968 instrumental hit ‘Apricot Brandy’.

Among more permanent musical projects, Fonfara was becoming a sought-after session musician – it was his work with The Everly Brothers on the 1974 live album ‘Stories We Could Tell’ that caught Lou Reed’s attention. The keyboardist first played on 1974’s ‘Sally Can’t Dance’, and would contribute to eight more albums until 1980, including ‘Rock and Roll Heart’, ‘Street Hassle’, and bonus tracks on ‘Coney Island Baby’. Fonfara co-wrote and co-produced Reed’s 1980 album ‘Growing Up In Public’.

In the 1980s, Fonfara recorded with Foreigner on their album ‘Foreigner 4’ which featured their 1981 megahit ‘Urgent’, and ‘Records’. In 1990, the keyboardist joined Downchild Blues Band – the inspiration for the 1980s film The Blue Brothers – with whom he would play for the next 30 years.

The band shared a tribute to Fonfara on their social media yesterday (January 9): “He was an incredible musician, a gentle soul and we were honoured to share the stage with him every time we performed”. Downchild added there would be “a celebration of life” once it was safe to gather again post-COVID.

Fonfara’s final recording was with Downchild at the band’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2019, featuring special guest stars Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd, Paul Shaffer and David Wilcox. It was released as ‘Live At The Toronto Jazz Festival’ in 2020.

The keyboardist is survived by his wife Avril, his daughters Ashley and Ciara and grandchildren Brooklyn, Camden, Jamie, and Jaxon.