An Interview with singer-harmonica player Mark Wenner of Nighthawks: Blues Harp at High Speed

"I have heard cats from a dozen or more countries play great blues. I think it is almost a universal language"

Mark Wenner: Hooked on nails of the Blues

The Nighthawks are an American blues and roots band, based in Washington, D.C. The Nighthawks had its genesis when lead singer-harmonica player extraordinaire Mark Wenner returned to his native Washington, D.C., after six years in New York City, lured back by the success of his friend Bobby Radcliff's local acclaim with a blues band. Mark Wenner was born in D.C. and raised in Chevy Chase, Md. Grew up listening to Black radio in D.C. and, at age 12, started going to matinees at the Howard Theatre. Graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1966. Went to Columbia University to study literature and writing. During freshman year, decided playing harmonica was more fun than being a poet. Finished undergraduate English degree in 1972 and headed immediately back to D.C. to launch The Nighthawks. The rest, as they say, is history. Formed in 1972, the Nighthawks underwent several personnel changes before stabilizing as the lineup of Mark Wenner, Jimmy Thackery (guitar), Jan Zukowski (bass), and Pete Ragusa (drums). Their 1979 album, Full House, issued on Adelphi Records, had guest appearances from Muddy Waters' sidemen, Pinetop Perkins and Bob Margolin.

Keyboard player Greg Wetzel joined the band in 1983, was a full-time member until 1986, and has continued to play at special performances as an "alumni" of the band. The membership of the band remained stable until 1986. At that time, tired of the band's extensive touring schedule, Thackery departed to front his own groups, most recently the Drivers, and record for Blind Pig Records and Telarc Records. Following his departure, several players filled the lead guitar spot.

These included Jimmy Nalls, Warren Haynes, Danny Morris, Pete Kanaras, with Kanaras becoming the longest lasting member.

Kanaras and Zukowski departed the band in 2004. They were replaced by Paul Bell (guitar) and Johnny Castle (bass). Beginning with dates in February 2010, Stutso replaced longtime drummer Pete Ragusa who announced his departure earlier in the year. The Nighthawks won the Traditional Blues/R&B Duo/Group Award at the 2009 Washington Area Music Awards. In 2011, their album, "Last Train to Bluesville" won the Acoustic Album of the Year at the 32nd Blues Music Awards, sponsored by the Blues Foundation.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

 

Mark, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?

I've loved the blues since the mid 1950s when I heard Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker and Big Joe Turner on the radio as part of the rock and roll of the early days. During junior high school I came under the spell of Ray Charles and then James Brown. And there was always Elvis, who recorded a number of blues classics that I didn't hear the originals until later, like “Feel So Bad” and “Reconsider Baby”, as well as “Let's Play House”.

In high school I discovered a lot more about Chicago blues from an issue of Sing Out that had a piece by Tony Glover. I purchased every album he mentioned: Best of Muddy, Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester...By the time I started college I had 15 Lightnin’ Hopkins albums and a box of harps. We had Butterfield play our homecoming dance in fall of 1966, my freshman year and I was immersed in blues and harp more than my studies. Junior Wells, Little Walter, Big Walter, Charlie Musselwhite. Saw and heard them all, except Little Walter...he died in 67 right after I figured out how important he was. I had to become more of harp player to understand that. I liked the simple stuff from Jimmy Reed and Harpo and Lester.

Is “The Blues” a way of life?

Blues is great music and a big part of my life but not a "way of life" for me.

"The harmonica is played by inhaling and exhaling. Breathing. Like living."

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Best moment was playing with Muddy (photo). In the shoes of all the harp masters! Worst was at Berlin Jazz Festival in 1984 with pompous jazz fans booing John Hammond as "campfire music" after cheering for weird space jazz by pompous musicians in white pajamas! Faced a hostile crowd with bad sound late on a weekday night with a very upset John Hammond.

Is there any similarity between the blues today and the blues of the 70s?

Blues today is blues of today. Every decade, every generation makes the blues their own. The grooves and dance beats change with the times. And there is always a rediscovery of the earlier sounds and grooves... In the early 80s the Thunderbirds reintroduced some of the coolest 50s grooves to a larger 80s audience and turned the disco era upside down.

Which of your work would you consider to be the best?

I am very proud of my work on volume one of “Jacks and Kings”, where we backed "real" blues cats and did some traditional material ourselves. I thought we got a great harp sound of that stuff as well. A 1956 Fender bassman in a stairwell. LOUD. I think the most recent Nighthawks work is the best as well.

Which artists have you worked with & which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best friends?

I've worked with as many major and minor blues artists as I could. Muddy, BB, James Cotton, Big Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Fenton Robinson, JB Hutto, Elvin Bishop, Bonnie Raitt, The Thunderbirds (early and late), Otis Rush...Nearly everyone.
Muddy was the Godfather, friend, hero...got to play as a sub for Jerry Portnoy a couple of nights in the band. Opened many shows and sat in. Had relationships with all his band guys and recorded with Pinetop, Guitar Jr, Bob Margolin, Willie and Calvin before they left to form their own bands. Toured with John Lee Hooker some but found him personally difficult. Opened for BB and he was always a gentleman. Recorded little known electric blues album with John Hammond.

 

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

On stage I feel a great openness and warmth for the audience and connection and almost an altered state of consciousness. Nothing quite like it. Maybe sex or riding a motorcycle at high speed.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

The most interesting period of my life is tomorrow.

"Blues is great music and a big part of my life but not a "way of life" for me."

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

Lots and lots and lots of playing music has made me a better musician. Also the better the people I'm playing with are the better I am.

How do you want to be remembered?

I hope I'm remembered as a link to the truly great bluesmen who came before me and I had a chance to have contact with and the next generation of players who won't have that opportunity.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

I wish I could have heard, met, Little Walter. I wish I could have seen some of these cats in their prime age rather than their old age.

From the musical point of view is there any difference between the north and the south?

Different sensibilities north and south. Southerners heard older black men (and women) in person playing blues on front porches and liked it but took it for granted and were not so interested in hearing that in a nightclub. They preferred Allman Brothers version (in the 70s anyway). Northerners were more fascinated by the down home styles as professional entertainment. Don't forget, Mississippi fraternity boys booked Howlin' Wolf for their dance parties, not folk festivals.

Tell me about the beginning of the band. How did you get together and where did it start?

The band started when I moved back to DC in 1972 from 6 years in New York and wanted to become professional. I hung around Bobby Radcliff and stole his drummer and meet Jimmy Thackery and we stated playing around with pickup cats and got a good reputation and after a couple of years got a great rhythm section with Pete Ragusa and Jan Zukowski in 1974 and began recording ( Rock and Roll in 1974) and touring 300 days a year until Thackery left in 1986.that established the identity of the band.  The liner notes from Rock And Roll are a manifesto of our concept. Reinvent rock and roll by going to the sources and staring over. Blues, rockabilly and soul.

When did you last laughing in gig and studio, and why?

The current Nighthawks laugh every night and also in the studio. We have a great spirit and are the best TEAM I've ever had.

Why did you call the album “Last Train to Bluesville”?

Last Train is a play on the Monkees' Last Train to Clarksdale and the name of the channel at Sirius/XM where we recorded the material. BB King's Bluesville.


"Blues today is blues of today. Every decade, every generation makes the blues their own. The grooves and dance beats change with the times." 

What are the common factors of exhaling and playing the harmonica?

The harmonica is played by inhaling and exhaling. Breathing. Like living.

Tell me about your meeting with Carl Perkins and Elvin Bishop...

Carl Perkins wrote the lyrics out for me of Put Your Cat Clothes on backstage at a show in Austin Texas we opened. I opened for him a number of times but only got to play with him once. there are some great photos of my friend Gregg Geller introducing us backstage at the Bottom Line in NYC.
In 1987 Pete Jan and I worked with Elvin Bishop as an east coast back up band. We toured from Key West Florida to Halifax Nova Scotia. We also worked together on some blues tours for the Rosebud agency with Hooker, Pinetop and Hammond. I am proud to call him a friend. When he would ask me to do a tune I liked doing Born in Chicago with him on guitar. Filling some big shoes.

...“Jacks and Kings”, how did this project come about?

Jacks and Kings evolved out of long weeks of opening for Muddy and developing a friendship with all his players in the late 70s. We had access to a studio where we currently recording Side pocket Shot and did two shows a night at the Cellar Door and then went with the cats (not Muddy) to the studio and jammed until dawn. then Went to bed and got up late and did it again. Maybe three nights in a row. these were Pinetop's first frontman recordings in over two decades. Some of Bob Margolin's first front man efforts as well.

You have traveling all around the world. What are your conclusions about the blues?

Travelling the world I have heard cats from a dozen or more countries play great blues. I think it is almost a universal language. It certainly allows a degree of communication the world could use a lot more of. 

"Slim Harpo gave me advice. He said I played pretty good but I should get some guys together and stick with them. I did. He was playing with Lightnin’ Slim and a very young drummer in New York and let me sit in. Until the early T-birds I never heard anyone get that groove they got." (Photo: The Nighthawks in Japan)

When you get back home, what do you play besides the blues when you’re kicking back at home or just to have fun?

My wife plays guitar and sings and I'll sometimes join her at home. There is a high level invitatin only Wedndesday night jam nearby as well that we often enjoy when I'm home. I get to do some local sessions and sit ins as well.

What advice would you had given to Roy Buchanan?

I would advise Roy Buchanan...I was a little afraid of him...to chill the fuck out...just kidding. He was so intense.

What would you had given to Slim Harpo?

Slim Harpo gave me advice. He said I played pretty good but I should get some guys together and stick with them. I did. He was playing with Lightnin’ Slim and a very young drummer in New York and let me sit in. Until the early T-birds I never heard anyone get that groove they got.

Do you have a message for the Greek fans?

If I have a message for Greek fans it would be Thank you for enjoying our American music and please invite the Nighthawks for some live performances in Greece where we have not been.

 

The Nighthawks official website

 


 

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