Thursday, June 15, 2023

THROWBACK THURSDAY: In Praise of Joey Dee and The Peppermint Lounge


Sunday, June 11 was the 83rd birthday of one Joseph DiNicola, who was born in Passaic, New Jersey. You probably aren't familiar with that name, but as a young man in his 20s, DiNicola was reborn as Joey Dee, who helped entice the world to do the Twist.

Happy birthday, Twist King!

And soon after Joey Dee and The Starliters released "The Peppermint Twist," a little bitty boy in Oklahoma City, discovering the joys of AM radio, (that would be me) came to believe that Joey's stomping grounds, the Peppermint Mint Lounge, 128 West 45th Street in New York City -- which later in life I learned was a tiny dump of a gay bar operated by Genovese crime family captain Matty "The Horse" Ianniello -- had to be the coolest place on Earth.

And apparently I wasn't alone.

In October 2007, James Wolcott wrote in Vanity Fair of the Peppermint Lounge:

Like CBGB's in the 70s, the Peppermint Lounge was an inauspicious dump destined to become a pop landmark. "Adjoined to the Knickerbocker Hotel just off Times Square, the Lounge was essentially a gay hustler joint, frequented by sailors, lowlifes and street toughs in leather jackets [early kin of the Ramones!]" ... 

He's quoting Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton from their book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey.

Wolcott also quotes author Tom Wolfe from The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby:

The Peppermint Lounge! You know about the Peppermint Lounge. One week October, 1961, a few socialites, riding hard under the crop of a couple of New York columnists, discovered the Peppermint Lounge and by next week all of Jet Set New York was discovering the Twist, after the manner of the first 900 decorators who ever laid eyes on an African mask. Greta Garbo, Elsa Maxwell, Countess Bernadotte, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, and the Duke of Bedford—everybody was there, and the hindmost were laying fives, tens, and twenty-dollar bills on cops, doormen and a couple of sets of maitre d's to get within sight of the bandstand and a dance floor the size of somebody's kitchen.

Wolcott hilariously documents the reactions of the squares to the Peppermint scene:

A disapproving Arthur Gelb of The New York Times, descending like an anthropologist into the amoebic bedlam of the Peppermint Lounge, wrote of the club's chic-y clientele, "Cafe society has not gone slumming with such energy since its forays into Harlem in the Twenties."

He quoted Gay Telese in the New York Times -- seems like the Gray Lady didn't dig the Twist -- saying:

Dee's booking was a rude surprise to the Met's then director, James J. Rorimer, who wigged out when he saw photographers hastening to photograph the guests doing the Twist in the shrine of Rembrandt and Cezanne... Apparently no one had thought it necessary to inform Mr. Rorimer that the Dee troupe, which has played for charity balls this month at the Plaza Hotel and the Four Seasons restaurant, as well as for Mayor Wagner's Victory Ball at the Astor Hotel, had been invited to play.

But I part ways with Wolcott when he describes Joey Dee. "The Lounge's house band was Joey Dee and the Starlighters, whose `Peppermint Twist' topped the charts despite yappy vocals and cretinous lyrics that can still produce cavities today ..."

I mean fuck that guy!

During various points in the heyday of The Starliters, the group included one James Marshall Hendrix as well as Joe Pesci (!) One of the mainstays of The Starliters was singer David Brigati, brother of Eddie Brigati, who would go on to fame as a singer in The Young Rascals. Other Young Rascals also played with the Starliters.

The Peppermint Lounge closed after it lost its liquor license in 1965. The state yanked the license because Thomas C. Kelly, who was listed as the sole owner and stockholder of the Peppermint, had been arrested for possessing obscene materials -- "not merely pornographic or obscene, they are unadulterated filth of the lowest nature" according to court documents.

The club opened and reopened several times, sometimes under different names. 

The final incarnation of the Peppermint moved to 5th Avenue in 1982. It closed in 1985, two years after The Cramps recorded their live album Smell of Female there. The original building on West 45th Street was unsentimentally demolished in the mid-1980s.

Ianniello controlled several gay bars in New York -- including the Stonewall Inn -- and later went on to control the Times Square sex trade in the 1970s. He was convicted in 1986 on charges of extorting protection money from bar owners (including the Peppermint's legit creditors), pornography peddlers, and topless dancers. He also was convicted on charges of  bid rigging in construction, skimming union dues.

"The Horse" was the son of the owner of Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy. He reportedly was working there on the April 1972 night Joe Gallo was gunned down while celebrating his birthday with his family there. (Ianniello never was implicated in that murder.)

He died in 2012 at the age of 92, but later was immortalized by actor Garry Pastore as a character who popped up in seven episodes of in the HBO series The Deuce, which was about the sleazy Time Square sex trade scene of the '70s and early '80s.

Joey Dee & The Starliters, who'd hitched their star to a dance craze, sank beneath our wisdom like a stone after Twist fever died down.

But Joey Dee & The Starliters, The Peppermint Lounge and the Twist all left a crazy mark -- or, more precisely, a twisted mark -- on the world of rock. 'n' roll. And though Chubby Checker, with the help of America's phoniest teenager Dick Clark, robbed Hank Ballard to become the national face of The Twist, for me, Chubby can't hold a peppermint candle to Joey Dee.

Here's Joey and the boys doing their biggest hit, which was produced by Henry Glover, who previously had worked with country, rockabilly and R&B groups on King Records. Glover teamed up with Mr. Dee and The Starliters at Morris Levy's Roulette label (Levy, of course, having many things in common with Matty the Horse, including Genovese ties): 

Here's the follow-up song, "Hey, Let's Twist," which also was the title of a quickie movie about Joey and the twist phenomenon (and you can find the actual movie HERE):

Joey attempted to popularize another new teen dance, the mashed potatoes with this tune. It always makes me hungry for hot pastrami:

And here's Joey's ode to a certain BBW who won his heart:

Finally here's a little Twistory from Ronny Elliott:

Twist on Joey Dee!


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