For Mark Wenner’s bar mitzvah 54 years ago, his parents gave him all the pieces the 13-year-old would need to assemble his own minibike.
“I think my parents were willing to buy me the pieces because they figured I’d never put it together and make it work,” Mark told me earlier this week as we sat on the patio outside his Kensington, Md., home.
But Mark proved adept at putting things together and making them work. He assembled the minibike. A few years later, he assembled the Nighthawks, the blues band he’s managed to keep running since 1972.
The band is the subject of a new documentary — “Nighthawks on the Blue Highway,” by Michael Streissguth — that will screen Aug. 19 at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club before the band itself hits the stage: Mark, Johnny Castle, Paul Bell and Mark Stutso.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for Mark, who grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., and graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
One does not immediately associate Bethesda with the blues, but Mark said that as a kid growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, the music was only a short bus ride away, like at the Howard Theatre in the District.
It was in the air, too, pouring from such radio stations as WDON. “They would play rock-and-roll till 9, country till 3, then rock-and-roll till sign off,” Mark said. “Their idea of rock-and-roll included Little Walter, Joe Turner, Elvis, the Five Satins — an incredibly broad spectrum.”
That spectrum made the District a musical melting pot, as diverse as any port town.
“No one seemed upset that a hillbilly was playing blues licks or a black guy could do a country song,” Mark said.
Or that a white guy could blow a blues harp, which is what Mark started doing in high school and in college at Columbia University.
After graduating, he founded the Nighthawks and persuaded his parents — his father an administrative judge, his mother a psychoanalyst — to get behind his dream. The Nighthawks honed their chops three nights a week at a club called Graffiti near Washington Circle and promoted themselves endlessly.
“We literally drove around to all the hippie enclaves with VW buses in front,” Mark said.
“We would find the VW buses in the cheap apartment parking lots and leaflet them. It was really as grass roots as you can imagine.”
By 1976, the Nighthawks were playing 300 shows a year. By 1986, they had played in 49 states and 10 foreign countries.
Many fans consider the band from that period the quintessential Nighthawks: Mark on harmonica, Jimmy Thackery on guitar, Jan Zukowski on bass and Pete Ragusa on drums. They flirted with fame in the form of the golden-maned Gregg Allman, who, fresh off his relationship with Cher, started showing up at gigs to jam with the Nighthawks.
“He told Rolling Stone he was going to join the Nighthawks,” Mark said.
Did he ever tell the Nighthawks he was going to join the Nighthawks?
“Not really,” said Mark.
That’s just one of several bittersweet episodes recounted in the documentary.
Peers such as George Thorogood and Stevie Ray Vaughan managed to find commercial success with the blues, but the Nighthawks found it elusive. Is that unfair?
“Fair does not enter into this,” Mark said, explaining that we live in a world where great players remain obscure while some kid who can barely fret a guitar becomes a megastar.
“I accepted that from the get-go,” Mark said.
He’s played music all over the world, shared the stage with his heroes and earned enough to upgrade from that bar mitzvah minibike to a garage full of Harleys.
It’s been 44 years since Mark founded the Nighthawks.
“Let’s see if I can get 50 out of this thing,” he said.
These area schools are reuniting in the coming months:
Academy of the Holy Names All-Class Reunion — Oct. 8. Email Sarah Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alexandria Hospital School of Nursing — Sept. 9-11. All graduates are welcome. Email email@example.com. Or visit www.ahsn.online or search “Alexandria Hospital School of Nursing (AHSN) Alumni” on Facebook.
Bethesda-Chevy Chase High Class of 1956 — Oct. 7 and 8. Contact Art Elgin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-869-8332.
Springbrook Trident Reunion — Classes of 1964-1968. Oct. 7 – 9. Email Bonnie McPhillips (’64) at email@example.com or call 240-893-2545.
Woodrow Wilson High — Classes of February and June 1956 — Sept. 9 and 10. Email Eleanor Elson Heginbotham at Heginbotham@csp.edu.
In my column yesterday about Beatles parody album covers, I implied that Peter Max created the look of “Yellow Submarine.” In fact, it was the designer Heinz Edelmann.
I know it seems like I only just got back from one vacation, but now I’m off on another. We’re headed to the beach for a week, so look for me back in this space on Aug. 22. Stay cool.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.