Fontana started in the 1950s as a subsidiary of the Dutch Philips Records; when Philips restructured its music operations, it dropped Fontana in favor of Vertigo Records.
1960s U.S. Fontana 45-rpm record of "Winchester Cathedral" by the New Vaudeville Band, one of four U.S. Fontana singles that topped the Billboard charts
Fontana's U.S. counterpart label was started in 1964 and distributed by Philips US subsidiary Mercury Records. The initial single release (F 1501) was a wild teen beat instrumental by famed British session drummer Bobby Graham, both sides featuring Jimmy Page on guitar. Among the hitmakers were Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders (then on their own simply as the Mindbenders), the Troggs, the New Vaudeville Band and Steam, all of whom had No. 1 hits on the label. Other successful Fontana artists included Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, the Silkie, Nana Mouskouri, the Pretty Things, the Herd, Gloria Lynne and the duo of Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg. The label also served as an outlet for other British acts such as the Merseybeats, the Others, Eden Kane, the Escorts and Sight & Sound.
In some cases, Fontana was early on artists who achieved greater fame and fortune with subsequent releases for other labels, like the Spencer Davis Group, the Guess Who, Don Partridge and Helen Reddy. Notably, in 1964, a group calling themselves The High Numbers released their first single, "
I'm The Face"/"Zoot Suit." They achieved worldwide success after changing labels and management, and changing their name to The Who. It was also an outlet for some of the productions James Brown recorded under his deal with sister label Smash Records including Vicki Anderson. Mercury discontinued the label (and one other subsidiary, Smash Records) in 1970.
Fontana's British division was the UK licensee for Motown Records (in 1961), Columbia Records and Epic Records (until 1962), Vanguard Records (until 1967), Mainstream Records and ESP-Disk. As with Philips, labels were blue for singles, black for EPs and LPs. In 1972, PolyGram acquired the dormant label.
In the UK and Europe, the Fontana label was largely dormant after 1974, although in 1980-81 it was used for releases by Sector 27 and Dennis Bovell. Fontana was revived in the late 1980s as an outlet for acts such as Tears for Fears, the Teardrop Explodes, Pere Ubu, Cocteau Twins and Swing Out Sister, and was active in the 1990s, releasing music for acts such as House of Love, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Ocean Colour Scene, Oleta Adams and James. It is currently an active division of Fontana Distribution, using the same logo.
The label's only artists as of March 2013 are Brooke Hogan and Papoose.