The Nighthawks: Blues and Beyond

The Nighthawks, from left: Paul Bell, Mark Wenner, Johnny Castle and Pete Ragusa. At 35, the 'Hawks are one of the longest-running bands in Washington.
The Nighthawks, from left: Paul Bell, Mark Wenner, Johnny Castle and Pete Ragusa. At 35, the 'Hawks are one of the longest-running bands in Washington.
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007

When the Nighthawks played Carter Barron Amphitheatre in summer 1986, a lot of folks in attendance thought it was the band's last boogie. Longtime guitar player and co-founder Jimmy Thackery was opting for a solo career, and the concert seemed so close to goodbye that the special guests included three alumni of Muddy Waters's last great band (pianist Pinetop Perkins, guitarist Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson and slide guitarist Bob Margolin) as well as John Hammond Jr. The Post review was headlined "Farewell With a Bluesy Blowout."

Since the Nighthawks -- or as their fans call them, the 'Hawks -- are headlining Friday's second Weekend's Weekends concert at Carter Barron, any implied demise was obviously premature. In fact, as Weekend starts celebrating its 30th anniversary, the 'Hawks are celebrating their 35th, making them one of the longest-running bands in Washington and, come to think of it, the country.

"And we're still having fun," says Mark Wenner, the group's co-founder and decoratively tattooed harmonica player. "Indeed, we're having a blast."

The 'Hawks are headlining a blues program that features a longtime colleague, guitarist Tom Principato, and the Kelly Bell Band. Probably 90 percent of descriptions of the 'Hawks' music begin with blues, Chicago blues in particular, but they've always had a wider palette. Part of the problem is that when the Bethesda-born Wenner came back to the Washington area after graduating from Columbia University and hooked up with Thackery, no one had come up with the buzz word for what they would be doing -- roots music. After all, being a "blues band" can be tantamount to embarking on a music career path with cement boots.

"If there had been that term, we probably could have plowed ahead," Wenner says without any trace of regret.

On liner notes for "Rock 'n' Roll," the Nighthawks' 1974 debut two years after the addition of bass player Jan Zukowski and drummer Pete Ragusa, Wenner had written about reinventing rock-and-roll "by using the same processes with which it had been invented in the first place, going to the various sources and mixing them together -- soul, rockabilly, jump, country, R&B and etc. -- taking all these previously used ingredients, pouring them into a stew and turning it up and stirring it around and seeing what comes out again."

The group's repertoire featured Little Walter, Waters and Elmore James, but it had room for Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, as well as contemporary songs and the band's plentiful originals. It was an approach cool enough to land a major label deal (albeit with a minor major, Mercury) that, unfortunately, did nothing to advance the band's career.

"I remember the Mercury records fiasco," Wenner says. "We had done the second album at their expense but without their supervision, and when we went to listen, it was all different people than the ones who'd signed us. We were somebody's leftover business, so there was no enthusiasm. But the [label] guy said to me, 'I don't know how to market this -- a blues song, a rockabilly song, a soul song?,' and we said, 'Well, that's what we are.' "

And it's what they've remained. Even as the band went through multiple guitarists in the late '80s and early '90s, the center held: Wenner's virtuoso blues harp stylings and gritty vocals underpinned by the rock-steady rhythm section of Ragusa and Zukowski. The current lineup, which some think is the best so far, came together three years ago with the arrival of bassist Johnny Castle and guitarist Paul Bell.

Castle had filled in for Zukowksi in the late '80s when the 'Hawks toured as the backing band for John Lee Hooker, Pinetop Perkins, Elvin Bishop and Hammond. He and Wenner had also played together in Switchblade, a rockabilly band that included occasional 'Hawks producer Steuart Smith, now guitarist for the Eagles.

Wenner says: "Anytime we've added a new guitar player, Jan and Pete knew all the arrangements, even if an 'arrangement' was something we'd done one night in Cleveland 25 years before and it seemed to work, so we did it the next night and the next night and then it became our 'arrangement.' [Getting a new bassist and guitarist] was really good in terms of shaking things up, freeing us, and we are just really beginning to experience some of the real magic of that now -- grooves rearranging themselves, the interaction's rearranging itself, and we've got some serious voices now. I don't think we've ever had the all-around vocal strength that we have now."

Plus, Wenner adds, "I don't know that we've ever had a guitar player with the scope and range of Paul Bell."

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