Behind The Curtain: Michael Fonfara
Photo Credit: Nick Harding.
Prior to getting into the substance of this month’s offering, it’s worthwhile to offer explanation; this installment of Behind The Curtain is different. In usual form of this article, it is still investigative in nature. It still looks for, and uncovers, details residing beyond the press release, offering readers insight about the featured artist. Usually, the investigation is completed by having a candid conversation with the artist in question directly, however, in this case, a different approach is required. It is relatively easy in the age of technology and information to find a biography of any artist profiled in Behind The Curtain – and I encourage readers to do so. This article intends to go further than the anticipated results people usually find. There is, perhaps, only one artist who comes to mind personally who warrants a change in approach with respect to how I discover what resides beyond the easily accessible. That artist is the late legendary keyboard player, songwriter, arranger and producer: Michael Fonfara.
Uncovering something more in-depth than what is already available about an artist in requiem is challenging for any investigative writer, however Michael Fonfara’s legacy is still very much alive today, so, as people remember him, and as his music continues to have an impact on listeners, it makes sense to rise to the challenge. For a number of months, I reached out to some of Fonfara’s closest peers, hoping that they could help me uncover what made him a special player. Although it would have been an impossible task to pose the question to everybody who Fonfara worked with in his long and versatile career, the people who contributed their thoughts provided the insight I was seeking. This article will highlight some of the sentiments that were shared with me by some of the people who shared the stage with Fonfara in significant ways – they are people who have been part of that storied career, and people who have also made a significant impact with their own musical contributions. In this case, it was helpful to know enough about a legendary musician’s career to have a sense of who to reach out to. My first call was to Gary Kendall, master Bluesman and most identifiable as the bass player for The Downchild Blues Band (Downchild). He is someone who shared the stage with Fonfara for many years, and he was instrumental in helping me contact the people who I knew would be important contributors. Special thanks should certainly be awarded to Kendall for his assistance. Let it also be noted that early in this investigation, I spoke with Fonfara’s partner, Avril, whom I also consulted about the intention of writing this piece. With approvals awarded, and communications made with the people who could appropriately offer credible insights and opinions, it was only then that I set out to investigate on Michael’s behalf….
For those who may not be aware, Michael Fonfara was a Toronto based keyboardist, songwriter, arranger, and producer who contributed to the music Collective in a diverse way for six decades. By my own reference, Fonfara’s professional start was in 1963 when he joined the Toronto based band, Jon and Lee and The Checkmates. He played with many notable bands, and his musicianship is featured on many notable recordings. Bands such as Jon and Lee and The Checkmates, The Electric Flag, Rough Trade, Foreigner, Rhinoceros, The Lincolns, The Downchild Blues Band and David Clayton Thomas are all projects Fonfara contributed to musically, however, the list is much, much longer. The aforementioned names, however, do provide a clear sense of the versatility that Fonfara’s musicianship offered the music landscape as it evolved from the 1960’s through to his passing on January 8th, 2021 (at 74 years). In addition to his active professional work, Fonfara studied classical piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music (reportedly under a former teacher of Glenn Gould) prior to his first offerings with Jon and Lee and The Checkmates. This is by no means a full account of Michael Fonfara’s professional career or contributions – that account would be a book. Perhaps, this summary is enough to provide readers with a sense of Fonfara’s career enough to understand that his life’s work was indeed work that spanned a lifetime. It is also worth noting that by every account, and with every reference that can be found about Fonfara beyond his performances, he was respected by his peers as one of the best at his craft. He has been identified by many as someone who possessed something more than musical proficiency, and that is the sentiment that inspired the curiosity for this investigation; I wanted to investigate what it was that made Michael Fonfara a special player beyond his undeniable skillset.
Outside of influence through the observation of Fonfara’s biography, performance, and catalogue, those who shared the stage with him for years also had things to say that were threaded with a regular theme. The first notable artist to be mentioned in this feature, is Pat Carey. Carey is well known in the Canadian music Collective as an accomplished saxophone player. He is also someone who played in hundreds of projects with Fonfara since they met in 1982, and here, he offers proof beyond the music itself, helping people understand what Fonfara brought to the stage in addition to his skill. For reference, Carey boasts 3 Juno Awards, more than 10 Maple Blues Awards, and is likely best known for his tenure in The Downchild Blues Band (Downchild), which he is still an active member of today. In part, Carey offers:
“Michael brought that exuberance, love for music and joyful demeanour to every project he was involved with. He was known as the Groovemeister when he lived in New York City, as his infectious feel was often called the glue that held the rhythm section together…He had a love of music that was intense, and he and I would spend many late nights listening to music ranging from Blues, to Jazz, to Funk to Reggae – to any music you can imagine – and he had a teenage like excitement about anything new he hadn’t heard before. He felt the same way about any new young artist he would meet, and he would take the time to talk with them and hang out. He would bring that same excitement and energy to the stage…He always gave 100% of himself to the music and any project that he was ever involved with. His teenage like excitement and exuberance were highly contagious, and he had a great sense of humour. That love of music and his fellow musicians is what made Michael Fonfara one of the greatest keyboard players of his generation!!!! Rest in Peace, my friend.”
Another important voice in the quest to uncover what exactly made Fonfara a special player is John Finley – most known as a legendary soul singer who served as the vocalist in John and Lee and the Checkmates. According to Finley himself, the two met on a street corner two blocks north of Steels and Yonge (introduced by Larry Leishman), in Toronto, in November of 1963. Their personal and musical journey started on that street corner and remained for six decades. As the conversation unfolded, Finley offered some summarizing thoughts that echo the sentiments others have shared:
“He was a guy that had a great feel, and he had this great pocket that he lived in. I watched him evolve as a player, and really learn the Blues – he learned to be asymmetrical in his playing, especially on the B3. He played with so much feeling. That’s the thing that made Michael special – he tapped into the joy of music. The biggest talent is when you are able to tap into the joy that’s in your heart, and share it, and spread it to the audience. Music is the language that you use to spread that joy – Michael knew this too – it’s not about your skills…it’s about your humanity. And, it wasn’t about a performance to him – it was an experience, and people were just witnessing his experience. When Michael would get on stage, the music was the joy he sat in.”
Describing the intangible can be a difficult task, yet, Finley seems to have put into words what, sometimes, can only be felt. The idea that Michael Fonfara was always present with the music in the moment is one that every artist consulted mentioned, in their own words. Perhaps that notion also serves as evidence as to how Fonfara’s career, skillset, and contributions were significantly versatile and longstanding. According to Finley, it appears that Michael’s ability to transcend his education and skillset by tapping into the joy of music is what made him a special player. It is worth noting that Fonfara’s partner, Avril, also discussed with me candidly that music was never about the money or the accolades for him, but rather his love of music and the joy of making it. Pat Carey’s remarks also serve as evidence that a true love of music is instrumental in describing who Fonfara was, both as a person, and as an integral part of the Music Collective. Also, lending to that impression, I am reminded of an article I read which was penned by accomplished keyboard player in his own right for half a century, Bill King – it featured a quote from Paul Shaffer (Canadian keyboardist most known for his work on the David Letterman Show), who mentioned that he had asked Fonfara about the Funk instrumental Apricot Brandy (which Fonfara wrote with Danny Weis) in an effort to ‘play it right’ while at a live event where they shared the stage a few years ago. Shaffer mentions: “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 Prince's. Thanks Michael. Shred in peace.”
Although there is already enough evidence provided in this feature to draw conclusions about what made Fonfara a special player, it was important to have a conversation with another artist who was one of his closest peers: Danny Weis. For reference, Weis has served as a guitarist in projects such as: Iron Butterfly, Rhinoceros, Blackstone, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix, Bette Midler, and more. He has also received Platinum and Gold albums for his work as Bandleader and guitarist in the 6-time Academy Award nominated movie, “The Rose” (with Bette Midler, 1979). By my account, and Weis confirmed, he and Fonfara’s musical journey began with the group Rhinoceros in 1968. They were musical cohorts in many projects, and it is worth mentioning that they share the songwriter credits for the well-known funk instrumental “Apricot Brandy”. As the conversation with Weis evolved, as with the other conversations about Fonfara, it went to a place that offered the insight I was looking for. Although the discussion went to many places, the part readers might find most telling stays in keeping with the intention of uncovering what made Michael Fonfara a special player:
“When him and I played funky R&B rhythm together, what he would play would be a mirror image of what I was playing, and we would compliment each other naturally. It wasn’t a planned thing – it was just the way him and I naturally heard things, and it worked.” Weis also offered another thought which speaks to Fonfara’s abilities as a player in general, saying: “Michael was able to fall into any situation musically and make it work, no matter who he was playing with or what he was playing. He played with joy in the moment, no matter what the project was. He was a great listener, and that made him great as well. He listened – and he listened to either play with or play off of the other players. Michael was always in that moment - always listening, and always present with the music.”
As mentioned at the beginning of this feature, Michael Fonfara had a long and versatile career in music; there are countless accounts from musicians on the scene who share the same positive thoughts about him as a player. 100% of the people who weighed in on Fonfara agreed that he was a player who was, indeed, special. Based on having countless conversations with musicians who shared the stage with him professionally, it is fair to say that Michael’s ability to be present with the music and allow each moment, each note, to be an experience that he enjoyed is that intangible “thing” that made him the special player he was. Much like the people in the audience, the people who shared the stage with Michael Fonfara got to experience those moments alongside him, and it is a worthy experience to share with readers – so that they can listen to the recordings knowing the intention behind every note that got captured. As his legacy continues through his catalogue of music, I believe it’s important for people to know that Michael Fonfara’s approach to music appears to be as significant as the musical skill listeners will hear for generations to come.
As this special edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention. This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via The Sound Café with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.
*Please note that a Memorial Concert (produced by the Toronto Blues Society) for Michael Fonfara will take place on Tuesday April 5th, 2022 at Paradise Theatre in Toronto, Ontario. (1006 Bloor Street West). Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Proceeds of the memorial will be donated to an education fund, which will be set up in trust, for Fonfara’s three grandchildren. The Michael Fonfara Memorial Concert will feature notable artists, including John Finley, Danny Weis, Donnie “Mr. Downchild” Walsh, Gary Kendall, Prakash and Jordan John, and many more. Tickets are available through www.eventbrite.ca.
Photo Credit: Nick Harding.
Photo Credit: Vince Jones.
Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years.
Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians from across Canada who perform predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.
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