The Nighthawks were formed in 1972 by harp player and vocalist Mark Wenner and guitarist Jimmy Thackery. After numerous changes in personnel, the line-up would solidify in 1974 with the addition of bassist Jan Zukowski and drummer Pete Ragusa. Basing their early sound on the classic Chicago blues of legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, the band fast found an eager audience performing on a thriving D.C. music scene that included talents like guitarists Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton.
As they expanded their sound to include elements of root-rock, rockabilly, and soul the Nighthawks would become one of the most in-demand live bands of the decade, regularly pulling down 300+ shows a year from 1974 through the mid-1980s. The band's on-stage chemistry was incendiary, and they would find themselves opening shows for, or backing up such artists as Muddy Waters, James Cotton, and John Hammond. The band released its first album in 1974, Rock 'N' Roll appearing on the recently-revived Alladin Records label and including covers of songs by the Rolling Stones, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, and others.
Open All Nite
Rock 'N' Roll was a strong debut, but sadly Alladin lacked the resources to promote the disc. Rock 'N' Roll had barely hit the streets before the Nighthawks returned to the studio to record their follow-up, Open All Nite. An inspired collection of hardcore blues covers released in 1976, the album and the band's legendary electric live performances began to break them out of the D.C./Maryland club circuit and earn them gigs further up the East coast as well as in the South.
Open All Nite would become an important influence on artists like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan, proving that their was an audience for rockin' blues in the face of disco and other mid-1970s musical trends. The Nighthawks would become friends with the like-minded George Thorogood & the Destroyers and would often perform together throughout the late 1970s. Prior to the release of Open All Nite, the Nighthawks would perform a live radio broadcast in Bethesda, Maryland at the Psyche Delly club, a scorching show that would be released in late 1976 as Live (at the Psyche Delly).
Major Label Daze
The band would remain busy through the end of the decade, releasing a steady string of albums like 1977's Side Pocket Shot and 1978's Jacks & Kings, gradually slipping in original songs among the usual covers and continuing to tour incessantly. The band made its first raids on Texas and Louisiana, one memorable series of Austin, Texas shows matching the Nighthawks with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and W.C. Clarke and the Cobras. In 1979, they would be approached to record with bluesman John Hammond, a spirited collaboration that resulted in Hammond's Hot Tracks album.
Due to the buzz around their live shows and critically-acclaimed albums, the Nighthawks signed with major label Mercury Records, releasing a self-titled album in 1980. Clearly, however, the label had no idea what to do with the Nighthawks, and after the band had recorded a second (unreleased) album, Mercury cut them loose. The band re-recorded the songs from this effort live, releasing them as Ten Years Live in 1982. They would take their first trip to the West coast, opening several shows for Muddy Waters, and would also perform in Europe and Japan during the early 1980s, creating a loyal overseas audience.
Surviving The '90s
The period of 1984 to 1994 would prove to be a tumultuous yet satisfying period for the Nighthawks. The band added keyboardist Gregg Wetzel in 1984, expanding the band's trademark sound, but would lose founding guitarist Thackery in 1986, who would go on to pursue a solo career. Before he left, however, the band kicked off a lengthy "Farewell For Now" tour that saw them perform with artists like John Lee Hooker, Charlie Musselwhite, and Robert Cray. The band recorded sporadically through the '80s, releasing only two proper studio albums, but continued to tour heavily throughout the decades.
After Thackery's departure, the Nighthawks went on hiatus, and during this period Wenner recorded a couple of solo albums, and performed with D.C. band the Bel Airs. By the mid-1990s, the band's style of blues-infused roots-rock would come back into favor after a decade of hair metal, grunge, and alt-rock. The Nighthawks re-convened with Wenner, Zukowski, Ragusa joined by a number of guitarists in the ensuing years, including Jimmy Nalls, Warren Haynes, and Jim Solberg. The band would release a number of albums during the 1990s, including Hot Spot (1991), Pain & Paradise (1996), and Still Wild (1999).
The New Millennium
The Nighthawks entered the decade of the 2000s much as they had ended the 1990s, touring 150+ days annually. In 2004, the band underwent another personnel change with Zukowski retiring, and the Nighthawks added bassist/vocalist Johnny Castle and guitarist Paul Bell. It was this line-up that would record and release the live two-disc set Blue Moon In Your Eye in 2006, following it up with the well-received studio effort American Landscape in 2009. The band released the acoustic Last Train From Bluesville in 2010. The album was Ragusa's last with the Nighthawks, the long-time drummer leaving to pursue other opportunities, replaced by Mark Stutso, a veteran skin-beater who, ironically, spent several years with Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers.
Recommended Albums: Much of the Nighthawks catalog is available on CD, and Open All Nite is the best of the early albums and a great place to start. American Landscape is a rocking, entertaining album but the truth is, you won't go wrong with just about any of the Nighthawks albums, and if you can't find them locally, the band sells many on their website.
Select Nighthawks Discography
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- Rock 'N' Roll (Alladin Records, 1974)
- Open All Nite (Adelphi Records, 1976)
- Live (at the Psyche Delly) (Adelphi Records, 1976)
- Side Pocket Shot (Adelphi Records, 1977)
- Jacks & Kings (Adelphi Records, 1978)
- The Nighthawks (Mercury Records, 1980)
- Ten Years Live (Chesapeake, 1982)
- Hot Spot (Varrick Records, 1986)
- Hard Living (Varrick Records, 1986)
- Live In Europe (Crosscut Records, 1987)
- Backtrack [live] (Varrick Records, 1988)
- Trouble (Powerhouse Records, 1991)
- Pain & Paradise (Big Mo Records, 1996)
- Still Wild (Ruf Records, 1999)
- Live Tonite! (Ruf Records, 2002)
- Blue Moon In Your Eye (Powerhouse Records, 2006)
- American Landscape (Powerhouse Records, 2009)
- Last Train To Bluesville (Rip Bang Records, 2010)