Many blues musicians can say they have been in the business for fifty years, but not many can report sticking with one band throughout those fifty years. Although the Nighthawks have undergone numerous personnel changes throughout the decades, (and at times appeared to have almost reinvented itself), there is one constant in the band—harmonica player, singer, and founder, Mark Wenner. And the band is still vibrant and very popular at its fiftieth anniversary. Blues Blast Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Wenner recently at his home in Kensington, Maryland, where in addition to his musical interests he restores antique motorcycles and is currently trying to re-socialize a traumatized rescue dog.
Wenner discovered his love for blues, roots-rock, soul, and rockabilly at the early age of ten, and by high school was enraptured with early bluesmen like Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He found himself preoccupied with the music scene while studying as an English major at Columbia University in New York City. He finished his degree but reported that it took a few extra years due to the musical diversions and his occasional leaves of absence to work construction jobs. During that time, he also evolved from being a roadie, to a booking agent, to playing in bands, to being a band leader.
Inspired by Bobby Radcliff, and after graduating from Columbia University, Wenner returned to Maryland and began to form the Nighthawks. He also was instrumental in bringing some major Chicago bluesmen to the East Coast although, like many of his other accomplishments, the rather humble Wenner had to be prompted before he spoke about that.
“The Nighthawks were playing at the Bayou on a rotation with two top 40 bands. I realized that Mondays were pretty beat—maybe 30 or 40 people, when we could usually get 1000 people in the room on a Saturday night, so I proposed that I could bring a real Chicago bluesman in there to draw a crowd and it would cost them only $500 and hotel rooms. The first was JB Hutto, and people knew who JB was because he was local for awhile, so we had about 350 people on a Monday night and the club owner was pretty happy about that.
“Eventually I was able to convince Otis Rush, Jimmy Dawkins, Big Walter Horton, jimmy Rogers and Kim Wilson to come. I did most of the grunt work to make all of that happen. I did a lot of picking people up at airports and such. Word got out about it, and we got pretty good at it and introduced DC to a lot of great Chicago blues guys. We also had a relationship with the Cellar Door, so we were able to open for Muddy Waters James Cotton, and BB King. We had kind of a monopoly because there was not much competition as far as local blues bands.
“We were later doing some Rosebud tours where everybody was on the tour, Robert Cray John Lee Hooker, and then throw in John Hammond and Elvin Bishop and later Pinetop Perkins too. As it evolved, they figured out they could send Hooker with just a keyboard and sax Player and the Nighthawks would pick them up at the airport and back them up on stage. It was phenomenal, and we would do a similar thing with Elvin. We were Elvin’s East Coast Band from Halifax to Key West. Elvin would send his extra guitarists to show up a couple of days ahead of time and rehearse us so Elvin could just walk on stage, and we would have been rehearsed.”
Wenner had many interesting experiences when the band played in Europe and Japan. He discussed one collaboration with a Japanese musician named Toru Oki.
”He was a really wonderful man with a bizarre vision of himself. He was a hustler and invented himself as a bluesman and he brought us to Japan to back him up for three-week tour, and then kept bringing us back from 1983 until the mid-1990s. Oki enjoyed exploiting our tattoos during the shows, pretending to be a tattooed Yakuza onstage.”
Wenner, who has had full-sleeve tattoos since his twenties, wanted to find a Japanese master tattoo artist, and an old girlfriend of Oki was able to arrange for that to happen.
“It was pretty bizarre. We had to sit in this tearoom for two hours and Rolls Royce limos showed up and they threw Thackery and me into one of the limos and took us to this place with no sign on the door. We see a guy who is working on someone who is tattooed from ankles to neck to wrists. He spoke no English, but looked at our funky American work, which seemed crude in some ways compared to what they do there and said go do your gig and come back and I will draw a nighthawk for you. Thackery and I both got Nighthawk tattoos. It had some Japanese writing on it, and we didn’t know if it might say ‘arrest this guy’ or maybe ‘kill this American asshole’ but we compared it to some things we found and realized it was the tattoo artist’s name.”
Mark had his own take on recent debates in the music industry regarding white musicians playing the blues,
“When I was in high school, I was pretty prejudiced against white people playing the blues because most of what I heard was pretty awful. But what opened the door for me was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. He wasn’t trying to sound Black but was playing the shit out of the harmonica and his band was kicking butt. I was having a kind of schizophrenic split between thinking I can’t do it because I’m a white guy and wanting to play harp. Butterfield gave me the license to do it. Then Charlie Musselwhite came out and he gave me a different view. He’s not the greatest singer in the world, but he is singing like himself. I don’t see myself as a singer so much as an actor. I don’t have a great voice, but one of my strengths is I can play a part. I did some acting in programs for summer school kids and did a combination of literary and theatrical study of the Theater of the Absurd.
“Also, one of the bands I was in while in New York did the music for a play we thought was going to go off-Broadway. I actually took a semester off school thinking it would go off-Broadway, but it didn’t. It was horrible. The premise was what if Jesus Christ was alive and got sent to Vietnam and it had Jeff Conaway as the star—the actor who later was in the show Taxi. The Director was great, the actors were great, the songwriters were great, but the play was shit. We did a parody of the play and the director called me a natural, but the author was pissed off—he was really offended by our parody.”
People assume “The Nighthawks” name is in tribute to Robert Nighthawk, but it actually started when a friend sold Wenner a 1958 Volkswagen truck that was painted flat green and black, and one night they saw it under a streetlamp and his friend referred to the truck as “The Nighthawk”. Wenner liked the name and initially called himself “Nighthawk”.”
“I had business cards with ‘Nighthawk—Harp Blues and Beyond’. It didn’t even have a phone number on it because at the time I was sleeping in the back of my car and staying on people’s couches. But later I decided to call the band ‘The Nighthawks’.
From 1974 until 1986, the Nighthawks consisted of Mark Wenner, Jimmy Thackery (lead guitar), Jan Zukowski (bass guitar), and Pete Ragusa on drums. That version of the band, often referred to as “the Bad Boys from Bethesda” became so well known in the Northeast region that they were considered the “gods” of the Psychedelly in Maryland and The Bayou in Washington DC. Wenner noted that Thackery had previously been in a band that demanded that he play standard blues songs note-by-note.
“He became a good mimic, learning off records, and once he got around someone and could see what they were doing, he could sound just like them. For example, once he saw Albert Collins and saw that he capo-ed up to C, he did that and sounded just like Albert Collins. He could take the ‘Dust My Broom’ lick and play it ten different ways and could sound like JB Hutto, Elmore James and more. I could tell who each person was with each version of the same lick. I never met anybody who could do that. He was like a blues computer.
All Nighthawks fans seem aware of the time in 1978 when the Hawks played Desperados and George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers played across the street at the Cellar Door. Thackery prearranged to be signaled by the light man when the Destroyers began playing Madison Blues, and the Hawks began the same song. Thackery and Thorogood then both walked out of the club while playing and met on M Street, stopping traffic, before switching and walking into the opposite venues, with Thorogood now playing with the Hawks and Thackery with the Destroyers. That famous moment has been referred to as both “The M Street Shuffle” and the “Duel on M Street”.
Spending that much time together, however, naturally led to some tension and conflict among band members, and Thackery left to begin a band of his own. Several players rotated through the lead guitar position when Thackery left, including Jimmy Nalls, Warren Haynes, James Solberg, Danny Morris and Pete Kanaras. In addition, Greg Wetzel joined the band as a keyboard player for two years.
Kanaras stayed the longest in the lead guitar position and was with the band when they were asked to film an episode of The Wire. TV writer David Simon attended the same high school Wenner had attended and was a huge fan of the band and asked if he could use a Nighthawks song as a background clip for bar scene in the TV show Homicide: Life on the Streets. Simon also wrote for the show The Wire and used a Nighthawks song in one episode and then brought the band in to film a barroom scene for one episode of The Wire.
“It was a barroom scene with dock guys, but it was a mystery bar. They covered the front of it completely so they could film in the daytime without light coming in. It is the best video of us playing in this working-class bar, although Kanaras had to finger sync to the Danny Morris track. It was very lucrative at first. Now I still sometimes get a check for like $1.35 or something, for when the show is shown somewhere like Poland.”
Wenner noted that tension eventually developed between him, Zukowski and Ragusa.
“Pete and Jan were not happy working with me; they were sick of me. It got to the point where if Pete said black, I would say white. He and I even got into some fisticuffs a few times. It is pretty scary to think I would attempt to do physical battle with Ragusa. I got my ass kicked a couple of times.
With each personnel shift, the personality of the band changed somewhat because Wenner has always encouraged new members to bring aspects of themselves out in the music. For example, when Danny Morris joined the band a whole repertoire came with him, and Wet Wille songs came when Jimmy Hall joined them briefly as a singer.
“Jimmy was incredible, but some hardcore Nighthawks fans were disappointed because they felt like we were just backing up Jimmy Hall and were becoming Wet Willie.”
From 2004 to 2018 Paul Bell was in the lead guitarist position and Johnny Castle played bass. In 2010, they were joined by Mark Stutso on drums and vocals. In 2009 they won the Traditional Blues/R&B Duo/Group award at the Washington Area Music Awards, and in 2011 they won the Acoustic Album of the Year at the Blues Music Awards for Last Train to Bluesville. (This was a moment described as “pretty wonderful” by Wenner, and he noted that the award still sits right on the table in his living room.) However, in 2018 Castle and Bell left the band to be replaced by the current lineup, including Paul Pisciotta on bass and vocals and Dan Hovey on guitar and vocals.
“Paul Bell and Johnny Castle brought the band back up to a creative level and we started exploring the concept of four-part harmony. The desire for that was there in the original band, but we never had the personal equipment to pull it off. When Dan and Paul came in, they took that to an even higher level and the degree of teamwork increased. I think personality wise, this is the best team we ever had. Stutso turned out to be a songwriter on his own and Dan Hovey is also a prolific songwriter. It is more fun than I’ve ever had and more artistically satisfying than it has ever been, not to take away from any of the old stuff.
The intricacy of their four-part harmonies can clearly be heard in their versions of “Down in the Hole” and “When I Go Away”.
“I brought ‘When I Go Away’ to the band just to show them what can be done with vocals, thinking maybe we could steal some aspects of it, and it was suggested that we just do that song. Mark (Stutso) is a great singer and Dan’s voice really gives depth. I’ve always wanted us to have a low voice—on the do-wop end of it, and we never had that until Dan. But it is best when the three guys are harmonizing around me. I’m not great at harmonizing around others, but I can add attitude in parts.”
Given that Wenner has a degree in English, one might expect him to also be a prolific songwriter, but other than “Guard My Heart” (and helping to co-write a few lyrics), he has not offered many original songs for the band.
“I did write 120 pages of what I thought would be the Great American Novel, and I also wrote a shitpile of poetry. I was pretty good at the poetry, and a few were published in small magazines. But at that time Bob Dylan was still living in the Village and there were journalists going through his trash and I started thinking I didn’t know if I wanted to expose that much of myself to the world. It’s too intrusive. I’d rather sing ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’. Also, because of my musical limitations, I had to rely on the rest of the band to help me because I don’t know music the way they did. My excuse was always that I knew too many songs and every time I had half a good idea, I could think of three good songs that said it better.”
When asked what living harmonica players currently impress him, Wenner immediately named Jason Ricci. He noted that he was aware some criticize Ricci for his harmonica sounding like other instruments instead of a harmonica.
“But you could say the same about Little Walter—his innovations with amplifying the harmonica made it sound like something other than it was, and that is really no different from what Jason does with his gizmos. Plus, Jason is just fantastic. If you listen to the way he played acoustic harp in a show we did together—it sends shivers up and down my spine. I also really like the young harp player in Richmond, Virginia—Andrew Alli. I wish I had more interaction with him.”
Wenner has quite an extensive Discography, with 30 Nighthawks albums, including one stand-out album Jacks and Kings with guests Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, and “Steady Rolling” Bob Margolin. In addition, the Nighthawks have collaborated on albums with John Hammond, Toru Oki, Billy C. Wirtz and Gabe Stillman, and Wenner contributed to the Ellersoul Records tribute to Big Walter and has released several albums as a solo artist or with his other current band, Mark Wenner’s Blues Warriors.
“It seemed like it was time for me to do a hardcore blues thing again. For the Blues Warriors I had started out with Robert Frahm and Clarence Turner, Steve Wolf on upright bass and Stutso on drums. Robert moved to Kentucky rather suddenly, but I was able to grab Zach Sweeney. Robert was more dramatic, and very tight and great, but Zach is much more relaxed and I’m liking that. It has been frustrating since the pandemic, and we lost our regular gig at JV’s Restaurant in Falls Church. We do have two gigs coming up, though, including opening for the Nighthawks in November, and playing Blue Mondays for Westminster Church.”
Wenner is also about to release a new Nighthawks album in March. He noted that he has gone back to Severn Sound Studio for this album.
“It was cool being the top honcho, calling all the shots for the Ellersoul albums, but I was disappointed in my own work. I like what David Severn did with Damn Good Time. He’s pretty special. He is more aggressive with me and very willing to express his own opinion. but left to my own devices I wasn’t as artistically satisfied with the sound of 444 or All you Gotta Do. We recorded “Tryin’ to Get to You” with David and I can tell the difference
When asked about the most memorable highpoints of his career, Wenner did not hesitate.
“I have tapes of me doing ‘Stand by Me’ with Ben E. King, one of me doing ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’ with Dr. John, one with me doing ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ with Muddy Waters, and also doing ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ with Carl Perkins. Those are the feathers in my cap.”
After spending time with Mark Wenner, it is not surprising that he is held in such high regard among his peers. Johnny Castle has talked about his consistency, noting that consistency “would suffice as a one-word description for him. Sometimes it could be maddening, but he was always consistent in material, venues, booking and travel. You could set your watch by his consistency.” The Rev. Billy C. Wirtz noted that Wenner was one of the most influential people in bringing the blues music scene to the DC area, and Mark Stutso noted that he has learned much from Wenner about “the old-school blues feel” and added “Mark has been a fair and kind bandleader.”
Keith “Lil Ronnie” Owens, (co-owner of Ellersoul Records), has known Wenner for over 40 years.
“I have the highest regard and respect for him. Not only is he a top shelf musician, but he’s a great guy. A lot of people don’t realize what an influence and supporter he has been to musicians and the music community. One of the most unselfish people I’ve ever met. And he keeps a first-class touring band together for 50 years. Enough said!”
To find out more about Mark Wenner, check out www.TheNighthawks.com
Interviewer Anita Schlank lives in Virginia, and is on the Board of Directors for the River City Blues Society. She has been a fan of the blues since the 1980s. She and Tab Benoit co-authored the book “Blues Therapy,” with all proceeds from sales going to the HART Fund.