Mark Wenner: Vocals, Harmonica
Mark Stutso: Drums, Vocals
Paul Pisciotta: Bass
Dan Hovey: Guitar, Vocals
The Nighthawks was an idea in Mark Wenner’s brain long before he was able to implement it. The musical product of pre-1958 radio in Washington, D.C., he did not know there were rules against mixing blues, R&B, honky-tonk country, doo-wop, gospel and rockabilly into one delicious stew.
In 1972, Mark, then 23, returned to his hometown after a New York City band apprenticeship eager to start a real, work-every-night band based on American roots music. He found a receptive local scene. Washington has long been a musical melting-pot of the kind that made Memphis the source point for the evolution of American music in the second half of the 20th century. It just never had a Stax or Sun record label to tell the world. As the city exploded with an influx of people from all the surrounding states during the Great Depression and World War II, Washington became a hotbed of musical cross-fertilization. When Bill Haley first brought his wacky Pennsylvania mix of hillbilly music and rhythm and blues to D.C. in 1952, people got it. And white kids like Mark found the Howard Theater – now recently restored and part of the historic top tier of the Chitlin’ Circuit that included Baltimore’s Royal, Chicago’s Regal and New York’s Apollo – just a 25-cent bus ride away from the suburbs.
The Founding Quartet
The original Nighthawks lineup solidified in mid-1974. Bringing together frontmen Mark Wenner and the young Jimmy Thackery with a veteran rhythm section, Jan Zukowski on bass and Pete Ragusa on drums, the quartet ruled the highways and honky-tonks until Jimmy’s departure in 1986 to pursue a solo career. The band opened many doors and forged many touring routes for their contemporaries, including the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray, and played with as many Blues and Rockabilly legends as they could. They opened show after show for Muddy Waters, James Cotton and Carl Perkins, and backed up and recorded with John Hammond and Pinetop Perkins.
The first years after Jimmy’s departure were a bit under the radar. Mark, Jan and Pete soldiered on, taking on such roles as Elvin Bishop’s East Coast band (from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Key West) and becoming the backing band of choice for the Rosebud Agency’s showcase tours with John Lee Hooker, Elvin Bishop, John Hammond and Pinetop Perkins. After a series of guitarists of the month that included Warren Haynes and Steuart Smith, a collaboration with Wet Willie frontman Jimmy Hall led to several years with a solid quintet that also included guitarist Jimmy Nalls (Sea Level, D.C. Dog). That version of the band never released any recordings, although if you order Jimmy Nalls’ CD from his website he will include a free live show of the Nighthawks from New York’s Bottom Line during that era.
The next iteration of the group saw a young Bob Margolin protégé from Chapel Hill, Danny Morris, step in as guitarist with the original three members, bringing the band back to a quartet. Morris stayed four years before leaving to pursue his love of surf guitar. He was followed in that role by Upstate New Yorker Pete Kanaras. Nine years later, Pete Kanaras left, and Jan Zukowski signed on with the Fabulous Hubcaps, a popular East Coast oldies show band. Pete Ragusa stayed until 2010, opting to work closer to home as a freelance player and producer.
A Team of Veteran Players
The current members bring decades of varied experience to the stage and studio. Paul Bell has played in many influential bands around the Nation’s Capital and is the consummate D.C. guitarist, capable of soul scratching or country picking. Paul was less familiar with the classic Robert Lockwood/Louis Myers styles of Chicago blues playing than some of his predecessors, but it didn’t take long for him to add those to his bag of tricks. When he plays a slow blues solo, you can hear a little of late D.C. picker Roy Buchanan, but without the tortured hysterics. Paul spent 10 years working with legendary blue-eyed soul man and keyboardist Tommy Lepson, who subbed for Mark Wenner on a number of dates this year while Mark recovered from open-heart surgery.
Johnny Castle started his D.C. career with Crank, popular early hard-rockers who opened for Jimi Hendrix. He spent journeyman time with Eddie and Martha Adcock in the heyday of D.C. Bluegrass, mixing comfortably with legends such as Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley at festivals. After a stint with funk in an outfit called Spatz, he came through Tex Rabinowitz’s Bad Boys at the height of the Rockabilly revival, splitting off to form the psycho-billy band Switchblade. In 1984, Mark Wenner developed a repertoire of material with Switchblade and together they recorded Mark’s Fugitive – a project that mixed hard rocking country classics with electric blues instrumentation (think Kentucky Headhunters). Live versions of some of those tunes can be heard on Mark’s compilation, Runs Good, Needs Paint. Before joining the Nighthawks, Johnny spent a decade recording and touring with diesel-billy legend Bill Kirchen.
Mark Stutso spent nearly two decades with former Nighthawk Jimmy Thackery. Before that he played in a number of big and small-time rock bands, including Ruffryder – a spin-off of Black Oak Arkansas – and Virginia Beach-based Trix. Originally from deep in West Virginia and Southwest Virginia, Mark put in five years in the coal mines before escaping into his drum kit. He lives in Pittsburgh and has collaborated with the late Glenn Pavone and Norman Nardini. His vocals are a force to be reckoned with.
All You Gotta Do
The venerable ensemble’s latest proves once again that they are one of America’s musical treasures. Funny and serious lyrics that mix with roots rock in a way that nobody else does it. Paul bell on guitar shines with blistering slide on “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” and some pur rock playing on “Another Day.” And how can you not love a band that ends a record with a cover of the Standells’ “Dirty Water?” – JH, Vintage Guitar“
Blues Music Award
In 2009, Sirius XM’s Bill Wax, having heard that The Nighthawks were playing some acoustic shows, invited the band to record some live tracks for his “B.B. King’s Bluesville” channel. In less than two hours, the band cut almost a dozen tunes. A week later, Bill handed them a mixed version with permission to release. After Bill Wolf’s magic-touch in the mastering, Last Train to Bluesville was released on RipBang Records. With the able assistance of publicist Mark Pucci and radio promoter Todd Glazer, the CD wonAcoustic Album of the Year at the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards in Memphis in May 2011.
The Nighthawks “444”
444 draws from the deep roots the band has always mined: an organic mix of originals and classic cover tunes. Some are well known, like Muddy Waters’ “Louisiana Blues,” and some more obscure, like the Du Droppers’ “Walk That Walk.” But they all blend to make a rich American stew. “Honky Tonk Queen,” a Wenner original that sounds as if it could have come from an old Rolling Stones’ session outtake; “No Secrets,” (another Wenner song) and “Price of Love” (written by The Everly Brothers) are previously recorded Nighthawks songs presented here with new depth and breadth. “The King” is well-represented on the new disc, as well. Two early Elvis Presley movie numbers — “Got a Lot of Livin’” the final song in his 1957 film, Lovin’ You (which Elvis sings out in the audience that includes his mother Gladys) and “Crawfish,” which opens his 1958 movie, King Creole — date from the magic period in the 1950s when Mark Wenner was most under the spell of the radical new star.
Johnny Castle contributes three originals to 444, including the hard-charging “444 A.M.” that gives the new CD its title. “High Snakes,” a swampy, haunting cry of lost love, was written and recorded by Johnny and his former DC-cohort, guitarist Bill Kirchen. Johnny’s lovely “Roadside Cross,” is unusual for The Nighthawks and gives the otherwise rockin’ CD a gentle and beautiful finish. It also features the only guest appearance on the album, the delicate mandolin part by Akira Otsuka, a pal of Johnny’s from his bluegrass days.
Mark Stutso borrowed a bluegrass original from his brother-in-law and turned it into a Texas funk groove in “You’re Gone.” For “Nothin’ but the Blues,” he drew on his friendship with Grammy-winner Gary Nicholson. The band had learned “Livin’ the Blues” backing up on a tour with Tracy Nelson, who co-wrote it with Gary. Mark Wenner takes the lead vocal on the “Hawks version, with just one little word change.
As always, the essential flavors and textures of this rich American stew come from the electric and acoustic guitar work of the incomparable Paul Bell, who continues to thrive in his role as lead guitarist, forever expanding his horizons on the instrument with the best of tone and taste.
Almost every Nighthawks recording has featured at least one Muddy Waters tune, and 444 is no exception. This time the band showcases its acoustic version of Muddy’s “Louisiana Blues” (staying close to the country blues tone of Muddy’s original version), recalling their Blues Music Award-winning acoustic release, Last Train to Bluesville, and Muddy’s live introduction on the band’s Open All Night album. As the legend said that night way back when, “They have a beautiful name. They are THE NIGHTHAWKS.”
Damn Good Time
At a festival in Switzerland in summer 2011, the band reconnected with David Earl of Severn Records. David was an old friend from his blues-guitar-slinging days. An agreement was reached easily, and the band and David created Damn Good Time with no muss and no fuss. All of The Nighthawks were involved in the production, and David was as sympathetic an engineer as they have ever had. David’s facility in Annapolis is at once state-of-the-art and delightfully retro, as are his abilities to reproduce sound. The band wrote, co-wrote or drew from close friends a wide range of tunes, augmented by some “Hawk-ified” versions of classics from Jimmy McCracklin, Nat “King” Cole, Elvis Presley, Wilbert Harrison and the Mills Brothers.
“This album represents the next chapter, after American Landscape,” Mark Wenner says, “and it’s still true to the fundamental blueprint laid out in 1974’s Rock & Roll.
Mark goes on to talk about some of the songs on the CD and how they were developed for the recording:
“Why not start with ‘Too Much,’ the Elvis tune my grandma bought me at Sam Goody’s in New York for my 8th birthday? Taking it back toward its R&B roots, the song is now channeled through the ghost of Jimmy Reed.
“Next up is one we learned working behind blue-eyed-soul monster Billy Price, ‘Who You’re Workin’ For.’ I thought I’d take a crack at a different vocal interpretation. Billy wrote this one with the late, great Glenn Pavone.
“‘Damn Good Time,’ the title cut, started as a country song. When the late Warren King brought it to Mark Stutso, it had been taken to Soulsville. Mark took it from there, and he and Johnny finished it. The title does say it, doesn’t it?
“’Minimum Wage’ comes out of Mark Stutso’s Pittsburgh musical brain-trust with the mad genius, Norm Nardini. ‘Down to My Last Million Tears’ and ‘Heartbreak Shake’ are also products of the Nardini/Stutso mob. ‘Tears’ is the perfect R&B grinding shuffle and ‘Heartbreak’ rocks it on out.
“‘Bring Your Sister’ shows how much Johnny, already the king of garage rock, has learned hanging out with the boss of power pop, Nick Lowe.
“’Send for Me,’ Nat King Cole’s most rockin’ cut, is lightened into the perfect follow-up to our version of the Buddy Johnson classic and crowd favorite ‘Pretty Girls and Cadillacs.’
“Jimmy McCracklin wrote ‘Georgia Slop’ about an actual joint, Peg Leg Lee’s, that was about a mile from present-day Atlanta blues haven Blind Willie’s. ‘Nightwork’ is another tune we learned backing Billy Price. People like to holler on that one”
After 40 years, The Nighthawks are still having a Damn Good Time. And so will you. Listen up!
The Nighthawks—Damn Good Time—Severn Records
Distributed by City Hall Records