An Untold Life: Rick Novito
By Maggie Nicholson
The old man’s fingers bent and arched the strings of the guitar. His hands moved like canoes along the instrument. Each string was a river. Rick Novito, a child then, looked up at the man. His round eyes shined like little moons. Rick was visiting his parents’ friends, the Villa’s. The Villa family had three sons. Rick and the youngest son, Joe, became close friends as children. They played guitar together, switching between relatives’ homes. As they aged, they continued to play together. Joe, like Rick, became an immaculate guitarist.
Rick’s father, Dominic, was killed in a construction accident when Rick was only seven years old. His mother, Gloria, raised them alone and never remarried. Dominic's father Joe worked on the railroad. His mother Mary owned ‘Magic Cleaners’ near the Morgan Street Junction in West Seattle. A painted figure of Mary still lives in the mural at the corner. In the painting, Mary is wearing an apron and carrying a basket. Gloria’s mother Gilda worked as a clothes tailor, and her father Louis as a coal miner in Ronald, Washington. Before Dominic died, he was always bringing instruments home for his kids. He would sweep through the family door with an assortment of musical trinkets: an accordion, a guitar, a violin. Rick and his brothers loved to tinker with the instruments, exploring the curves with unsure fingers.
Uncle Charlie became a paternal figure to Rick. Charlie owned a cleaners business in the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. Charlie got Rick and his cousin Ralph jobs doing janitorial work and setup for events there. At family gatherings, Charlie would sing old songs on his guitar, forming the middle of a little circle. Everyone would gather around him to sing and clap. Rick could play guitar by nine years old. His Uncle Charlie taught him slowly, under the shadows of seasonal trees.
Rick was almost never angry, not even as a child. There is one time in particular that is recalled by his family, perhaps because it was so rare, when Rick was angered by his friends' practical joke. Rick was working alongside his friends Tony and Jack at Husky’s Deli, where the boys made batches of ice cream. Rick loved black licorice, and Husky’s had a flavor he always ordered for himself. Tony and Jack made the batch of black licorice ice cream, separated out a cup for Rick, and poured a huge dollop of dye into it. After Rick ate the ice cream, his mouth was stained dark black for days.
Throughout both grade school and high school, Rick was in bands: performing, competing, and learning to commune musically with others. He was shy in high school. The girls swooned over Rick, despite, or perhaps because, of this introversion. In high school, he was chosen as ‘The Handsomest Lad.’
He practiced guitar in his bedroom for hours as a teenager. He sat on the floor beside his record player. A B.B. King record would play fuzzily over speakers, pulsing up and down like a heartbeat. He'd listen to the song, turn the record player off, practice the song himself, and repeat the process. He would play the song over and over until he had mastered it. Later in life, he opened a show for B.B. King with his band ‘LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends.’
In the early 80’s, Rick lived in L.A. He lived alone in a little house in Burbank, and did studio work, where he befriended Bob Garcia, who at the time was the artist relationship manager at A&M Records. Bob thought Rick was incredibly talented.
Despite Rick’s talent, he was not egotistic. If anything, his progress in the musical field was stinted because of how humble he remained. He was not a materialistic person and did not like self-promotion. He liked to wear t-shirts, jeans and leather boots. For important shows, his siblings would pick nice shirts out for him to wear.
Rick, on top of being a master guitarist, was an accomplished and ardent woodworker. It was his second, and equally loved, craft. He cherished many types of wood: birch, cedar, maple, pine. He took his sister in law Shannon shopping for wood, and poured water gently over the veneers to show her what it would look like finished. He made clocks, furniture, cabinets, doors and woodcarvings.
He attended Gompers Woodworking School in Washington when he was in his twenties. He loved the work, but was always filled with fear that one day he would cut a finger off and not be able to play the guitar anymore. He had watched a classmate cut off a finger.
He purchased an old home down the street from his mother’s house, which he gutted and rebuilt from scratch. His sister Cindy taught him to do stained glass, and he chipped colorful fragments into the window of the front door. Cindy's children now live in Rick’s old house.
He didn't need to be around other people in order to be happy. He was contented to sit alone on his deck and gaze at the mountains.
He was deeply kindhearted, reliable, and never late. He played rock and jazz guitarists through his headphones and closed his eyes. He could revel in the greatness of others. He had serenity and was at peace with himself.
When he was in his early twenties, he played guitar in a funk and R&B band called Cameo. Cameo was playing at a downtown jazz bar when he met Terry Morgan, who would become a longtime friend. Years later, Terry invited Rick to be the lead guitarist in the band ‘LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends.’ Rick had a beautiful sense of melody. He was gracious in life, and in music. His harmony with the world translated over into his guitar playing.
The band toured the country together. They opened for Al Green at the House of Blues in Chicago, and for B.B. King at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. They played with the great Jonny Lang.
Rick positioned himself at the back of the traveling van, nestled between the plush seat and fogged windows, a blur of green trees humming past. He wedged a pillow behind his back, and read books while softly strumming at his guitar.
When the band reached their historic venues, Rick would stare at the architecture. As a builder himself, he could acknowledge the woodwork and design. He ran his hands over the walls and banisters.
The band was in the middle of recording a new album called “A Change is Coming,” in March of 2008, when Rick passed away. He didn’t smoke or drink or do drugs. The one alcoholic drink he did like was a taste carried over from his childhood: black-licorice flavored liquor, called Sambuca.
LeRoy felt a special bond with Rick. After his passing, LeRoy released an album "Traces,” which he dedicated to Rick’s memory. It included a beautiful song called "Traces,” the lyrics of which follow textually below. Just before Rick was hospitalized, he made contact with many people that he hadn't contacted for years. It was like he knew something was about to happen.
Traces of Your Soul (Rick's Song)
“Shadows pass across my window; I turn my head so I can see.
I thought I saw you crossing the street wide open; you were smiling at me.
Time is passing oh so quickly; winter's come to slow me down.
I think of you at odd times and places, I hope you know there'll always be traces of your soul.
Trees are naked in their wisdom; scattered leaves are on the ground,
funny how the light changes complexion, one moment and it stirs my reflection of your soul.
How could you feel your time growing nearer, how could you see your fate in the mirror?
Reaching out across the heavens: round the corners of my heart.
I know that there will always be stages.
Your innocence still haunts me with traces of your soul.”
Whenever Rick felt downhearted, he conversed at length with his brothers and sisters. He had faith in God, attending church in waves: sometimes very often, and at other times sparingly. He was a spiritual and sensitive man. As his mother grew older, he took her out to eat, filled her car with gas and told her stories. As the eldest son, he felt it was his responsibility to take care of her.
His favorite time of year was Christmas. He loved snow. One year, he insisted on having everyone over at his home. He cut down a tree and drowned it in Christmas lights the colors of the Italian flag. For tinsel, he used spaghetti. He cooked it until it was pliable and soft. He cut out puffy circles of insulation and painted them brown and red like meatballs. He hung the meatballs on the tree alongside Italian cookies shaped like snowflakes.
Rick was a healthy man. He prepared fresh juices, carving up garden carrots and apples. He loved to cook big pots of soup in his kitchen. Every day, he walked the long distance from his house to the rocky beach, breathing in the salty air and letting the cold water lick his toes. His siblings and friends were always happy to see him, and when he left to go home, it always felt too soon.
Jack Miller, of Husky’s, says: ‘it didn't matter if you were a guy or a girl; Rick was everyone’s sweetheart.’
Some of Rick’s great guitar work is on the track at the link above 'Still Not Over You' and he plays the guitar intro on the song A Change Is Coming, also linked above.
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