Artist, blues musician ‘Bumble Bee’ Bob Novak dies at 83
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He wore Borsalino hats, wielded a 1963 Fender Stratocaster guitar and talked like a hipster philosopher.
His favorite things?
“Painting, music, women and food,” “Bumble Bee” Bob Novak used to say. “I spent time in Copenhagen the last three years, hanging out with Danish pastries. I composed a song on it.”
The “Bee” grew up around Madison and Paulina. “Blues was my neighborhood music,” he once told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Maxwell Street was my shopping mall.”
He learned to sing and play guitar and harmonica from some of the musicians who made the words “Chicago” and “blues” click together: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King, Otis Rush, B.B. King, Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, Freddie King and Sunnyland Slim.
Slim bestowed his nickname. “He always said, `You sting like a bee’ ” with his guitar, Mr. Novak said in a 1990 Sun-Times interview. His band was Bumblebee Bob and the Stingers.
Besides being a respected musician, Mr. Novak was a renowned artist whose paintings — bold and colorful as a zoot suit — commanded thousands of dollars. He designed the official poster for the 1989 Chicago Blues Festival.
Almost every year since 1999, Rosa’s Lounge commissioned a Novak work to use on T-shirts and posters promoting the near Northwest Side club. “His paintings demanded attention,” lounge owner Tony Mangiullo said.
He knew all the good pawn shops, where he picked up classic guitars for a few dollars and re-sold them. Buyers like Neil Young, Ron Wood and the members of Foghat not only could afford the markup — they treasured his finds for their history, rarity and sound, said a friend, John Fridono.
He played music in London and Copenhagen and performed with Peter Frampton and Humble Pie in Europe.
Mr. Novak, 83, of Oak Park, died July 13 at West Suburban Hospital of afflictions associated with age.
Art was his passion. Until three weeks ago, he was still painting. “He used to say it was his ‘first squeeze,’ ’’ said Fridono. “He took up music to pay the bills.”
His acrylic canvasses, influenced by Cubism and Picasso, were often shown at downtown galleries. They “capture a kind of street blues, not country blues,” said Mr. Novak’s friend, Val Camilletti, owner of Val’s halla Records in Oak Park. “They show a multiracial West Side of Chicago in the ’40s and the early ’50s.” Often, he slipped in an homage to the Chicago skyline — a hint of Lake Michigan or a building that looked like the Hancock — glimpsed in a window reflection or a corner.
His paintings had wending, bippity-bop titles with the feel of beatnik poetry or a blues jam.
One was called, “The Boys — They Find Things Before People Lose Them.”
Another, of Marilyn Monroe, was titled, “Marilyn Had Health, Wealth and Beauty Yet Each Night She Waited for the Wolf to Make the Midnight Creep.”
His speech patterns also echoed the blues, combining Yiddishisms like “schmear’’ and references to Michelangelo. “He was probably the first person any of us heard say ‘dude, ’ ’’ Camilletti said. “He was totally street.”
Mr. Novak grew up near Damen and Erie, the son of a Polish mother and a Russian, accordion-playing father, said his ex-wife, Mary Ann Novak, with whom he remained friends. He attended St. Columbkille grade school and Wells High School.
He told the Sun-Times he volunteered for the Army during the Korean War after “a misunderstanding with the law.” He attended the School of the Art Institute on the GI Bill, graduating in 1958. There he overlapped with artist Ed Paschke, and they became friends.
Another friend, author Tennessee Williams, used to drop in at their home when he was in Chicago, Mary Ann Novak said.
Bumble Bee left behind paintings, guitars, candid photos he snapped of blues greats and cassettes of Muddy Waters showing him a thing or two. To get Muddy on tape, he’d play some notes and ask the legend if it sounded right. “Muddy would say ‘No, it sounds like this —’ ’’ and play some licks, Camilletti said.
His favorite guitarist was Hubert Sumlin. “He said he had the most gentle touch,” his ex-wife said.
The Bee could sting. “One side was outgoing and comical, and the other was dark,” Fridono said. If he took offense, he “wouldn’t let galleries show his work. He didn’t like a lot of people. He was a typical artist — all left brain.”
He did something sweet when Camilletti could only afford to admire his work. It was 1986, and his canvases were going for about $6,000. “He said, ‘Val, I’m going to write a number on this slip of paper here, and you see if you can afford it,’ ’’ she recalled. “And he left, and I turned it over, and it said a dollar sign — and a zero.” She still has the painting.
A memorial party-jam session is planned at 3 p.m. Sept. 27 at Rosa’s Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage.