& THE PEPPERMINT LOUNGE
by Alan L. Chrisman
My friend, Boris, a big fan of The Rascals, recently loaned me a book, Peppermint Twist, by John Johnson Jr. and Joel Selvin. And what a story also connected to The Rascals one, I was originally going to write! For this fascinating book, shows how an innocent dance craze in the early 60’s would become intertwined with the Mafia, and in often hilarious ways.
The Rascals (originally called The Young Rascals) were an American white blue-eyed soul band, with several big hits in the 60’s. I already knew that most of their members (Eddie and David Brigati (vocals), Felix Cavaliere (vocals and keyboards), and Gene Cornish (guitar) had gotten their start as part of the band, Joey Dee and The Starliters, at the Peppermint Twist Lounge in New York City, which became famous for the dance craze, “The Twist”.
The Peppermint Lounge had been a small out of the way bar owned by a Mafia kingpin, Johnny Biello, who worked for the infamous New York gangsters, “Lucky Luciano” and Frank Costello. They had bought it as a “front” in which to run their illegal activities in its backrooms. But almost overnight it becomes the trendiest place in New York and the nation because this crazy new dance had caught fire. And this was the place where everybody was coming to try it out and be seen, including all the movie stars and President John F. Kennedy’s wife, Jackie.
“The Twist”, this dance that suddenly was now taking the nation by storm, had been copied from a 1959 song by R&B singer Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, who previously had had the sexy hit, “Work With me Annie”. But the song hadn’t done much for him.
Dick Clark had the most popular teen dance show on TV, American Bandstand, and could make or break an artist just by being on his show. He was looking for someone to record a Xmas message for his fans and mimic the voices of some rock ’n’ roll stars. He was recommended a guy, Ernest Evans. Clark’s wife thought Evans sounded like Fats Domino, so she named him Chubby Checker. Clark got Checker to cover Ballard’s R& B minor hit (with the lyrics watered down). When Checker did it along with twisting his hips on Clark’s show, it went to #1 in 1961.
In early 1962, Joey Dee and The Starliters had their own #1 with “Peppermint Twist”. Suddenly, this obscure bar, owned by the Mafia became the place to be. So now The Mob had this “front” club with hundreds of people lined up to get in and with the N.Y. police outside trying to control the crowds. It had become high profile, so they had to go legit (although they still sold diluted drinks) and didn’t care for the music themselves. At the door, as bouncers, were big tough former wrestlers and Mafia underlings, and with the elite of society trying to bribe them, just to get into this small but trendy club to try, at the time anyway, this somewhat-suggestive dance. So you had this strange combination, for a brief period, of Hollywood, The Mafia and rock ’n’ roll.
Joey Dee and The Starliters were packing them in. At one time in the band, there had also been a guitarist James Jones (Later Jimi Hendrix) and Charlie Neville (later Neville Bros.) and even later actor, Joe Pesci on guitar. The Starliters toured Sweden in late’ 63 and who opened for them was this still-unknown band in America-The Beatles. One night also this cute black girl trio showed up at the Peppermint Lounge and the owner thought they were the dancers he’d hired so he got them to get up and dance by the rails (this is where the 60’s Go-Go Dancers idea first started) near the stage and they sang with the band and became regulars. They would go on to be produced by Phil Spector and have many hits-they became The Ronettes.
When The Beatles came to New York a few months later in Feb. ’64, to be on the Ed Sullivan Show, they asked go to the Peppermint Lounge. By now, The Mafia, realizing they could make lots of money off this rock ’n’ roll, had opened another Peppermint Lounge in Miami, Florida and it became the next hot spot. When The Beatles went to Miami the next week to film their 2nd Ed Sullivan appearance they visited the new one in Miami, where they wanted to meet Hank Ballad, who was reluctant at first, feeling he had been ripped off by white radio who he felt had stolen his minor hit (although he would make lots of money on it as the original writer). Also The Beatles met with this up-and-coming boxer Cassius Clay (later named Muhammad Ali), as he was about to surprise everyone and beat Sonny Liston and change society too. Ali even got up and sang at the Miami Peppermint Lounge.
“The Twist” was actually just the beginnings of a cultural shift, which The Beatles, of course, would carry through. Up until “The Twist’, all through the 50’s and early 60’s, rock ’n’ roll was only for kids; no one took it seriously. Elvis when he had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, had not been allowed to show his gyrating hips on camera. Dance crazes had come and gone, for the kids again. But the Twist was different, for some reason it caught on, and after the movie stars were doing it, everybody else wanted to try it. And for the first time, adults were doing it too.
Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver, observed in his book, Soul On Ice, written while in prison, that white America was for the first time in 200 years, perhaps, shaking their asses. I remember doing The Twist at my high school gymnasium dances in the small U.S. Midwestern town I was living in then; it had filtered down even there. Cleaver also wrote about The Beatles reflecting America’s black- influenced music back at itself through English eyes and sounds, which would soon capture the U.S. and the world. So a whole new era and decade had started. And The Twist” was just the first indication of what was to come in the 60’s.
By the time The Young Rascals went out as themselves (with Dino Danelli on drums) in 1965, they had already had quite an education in the kind of music they were to follow and make their own. Their first hit was “ I Ain’t Gonna Eat My Heart Out Anymore”. They soon followed it up with “Good Lovin’ “at #1 and “You’d Better Run”. Then came “I’ve Been Lonely Too long” and “Groovin” another #1 song and album of the same name in ’67. “How Can I Be Sure” (in a world that’s constantly changing) was a wrenching ballad in 1967 and “A Beautiful Morning” was a hit in 1968. Also that same year, in which Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, they released the political classic, “People Just Got to Be Free”. After 1968 they became known as just The Rascals. I think,they were one of the few white rock groups to be able to really capture that black-influenced soul sound and make it sound authentic. The Rascals put out several albums, but among the best is their Groovin’ album in ’67. Time Peace: The Rascals Greatest Hits has all their classics. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. There was a show with them on Broadway, based on their songs and story in 2013. Stevie Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s guitar player and also from New Jersey, has been one of the biggest supporters for their recognition.
Boris, and I were fortunate to meet The Rascals keyboard player, Felix Cavaliere (along with Billy Preston, who played with The Beatles, Stones, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, etc.); Randy Bachman (Canada’s Guess Who and BTO) and Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad) -all part of one of Ringo’s touring All-Starr Bands in the ‘90’s in Ottawa, Canada (which was also The Rascals’ guitarist, Gene Cornish’s home town).
And if you want to read an amazing story about how an innocent little dance would forecast the massive changes which were to affect America and the world soon, I recommend the Peppermint Twist book. The book is full of very funny stories about how rock ’n’ roll and Mafia-types intersected at a certain time. Ronnie Spector calls it “The Sopranos meet American Bandstand”.
See “The Twist” sung by Chubby Checker:
See The Rascals’ songs Medley: