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.