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Pete Ragusa: A Nighthawk walks away

The Nighthawks, with Pete Ragusa, lower right.

For about as long as anyone can remember, the Nighthawks have been pumping out a roiling blend of blues/rock/bluesrock/rockabilly/country/rhythmandblues/Americana. And for as long as anyone can remember, Pete Ragusa has been pounding out a steady backbeat on the drums, the big, thumping heart of the Nighthawks' music. Pete joined the Nighthawks in 1974, two years after it was formed by harmonica ace and singer Mark Wenner.

Thirty-five years Pete was in the band, which is why it's a little hard to get your head around the news that he played his last gig as a Nighthawk last Saturday at Glen Echo's Spanish Ballroom.

"I'm still kinda numb from the decision I’ve made," Pete told me yesterday. There had been no announcement, no "Pete's farewell gig!" promotion. He'd just been thinking about a change, talked with Wenner about it, and decided to amicably hang up his sticks.

Well, his Nighthawk sticks. He'll still be making music. "I don’t know what I’m gonna do," Pete said. "I know tomorrow I'm gonna sit down and practice my writing discipline, writing songs, maybe getting together with new people to write with."

I asked Pete what the last song he played as a Nighthawk was. He couldn't remember. But then he does have a lot of memories crammed in his 60-year-old head. It wasn't long after the Nighthawks were founded by Wenner (a Bethesda-bred blues fan and Columbia grad) that they were being called "Washington's prime suppliers of boogie." (Washington suffered from a boogie deficit then.) Wrote Post critic Richard Harrington: "A bar owner’s dream, the Hawks have filled a thousand and one nightspots with raucous boogie that drives people to drink.”

At its peak, the band was playing 300 nights a year. Wenner books the gigs. Pete would do the logistics: getting the deli trays ordered, making sure the PA was adequate, finding the hotel. The Nighthawks are the quintessential working band, grinding it out night after night, loading up and moving to the next gig. "One day I may just calculate all that mileage," Pete said. "I’m sure it’s well over two million miles."

With the Nighthawks, Pete was able to pay with such greats as Muddy Waters, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins. He sat in the drummer's stool behind such local lights as Catfish Hodge, Tommy Lepson, Tom Principato and Bill Holland. He played on more than 20 albums.

Pete got his first snare drum when he was 11. He graduated from Bladensburg High in 1967. "Growing up in Washington back then was an incredible advantage for anybody who loved music," he said. "The radio was just saturated with every kind of music you could want to hear."

There was WOOK and WUST, WEEM and WPGC, not to mention WOL.

"On WOL you could hear James Brown on one song and hear Jimmy Reed the next. The next song would be the Righteous Brothers. They played it all."

Pete describes himself as a "groove" drummer: He lays down the beat without any fussy fireworks, playing what the song demands. That's the way he's paid his bills for the last 35 years.

Being in any job for that long could seem like a grind, and Pete admits there were times when he was worn down by the hassle of the road. But then the band would get on stage, the camaraderie would kick in and "we'd hit a groove and we just rolled with it. It's kinda like floating in air sometimes."

Pete's being replaced in the Nighthawks by Mark Stutso, who used to play with guitarist Jimmy Thackery (who used to be a Nighthawk). "He’s a great drummer and one of the best vocalists I know around," said Pete. "I’d just like to close by wishing the band the best of luck in the future."

By John Kelly  |  January 7, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
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Pete, I know we'll still see you around town but I wanted to say I've seen you guys starting in 1977 back in Harrisonburg at the Elbow Room and have continued to enjoy your shows since then at JVs, Sunset Grille, State Theatre, Glen Echo, etc. Just wanted to say thank you for those years of tremendous enjoyment, and best of luck to you on all your future endeavors.

Posted by: AsstGM | January 8, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

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