How the Mafia Helped Your Mama Do the Twist
Peppermint Twist: The Mob, the Music, and the Most Famous Dance Club of the '60s By Joel Selvin & John Johnson, Jr. with Dick Cami Thomas Dunne Books, 304 pp., $24.99
As far as dance crazes go, the Twist might go down (swiveling, of course) as the best known of all time. In 1961 and 1962, the slightly-naughty-for-its-time dance took over from dance clubs and country clubs to the White House itself.
Chubby Checker's anthem "The Twist" hit the No. 1 spot on the charts on two completely separate times. Joey Dee and the Starliters also took "The Peppermint Twist" to the top, and as the house band at the New York club from which the song took its name, were in a good position to promote it. Fred Flintstone, Jackie Kennedy, Dick Van Dyke, and even the Mercury astronauts were also seen Twistin'.
"The Twist hit like an atomic bomb, and the Peppermint Lounge was ground zero," the authors note. Indeed, it seems just as many socialites and celebrities were dancing as teenagers.
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But the backstory to the Peppermint Lounge (and its short-lived sister club in Miami) is the focus of this book by music journalist Selvin, crime journalist Johnson, and club manager/guiding light Cami.
See, in a seems-like-fiction scenario, the club was owned by high-ranking Mafioso Johnny "Frutto" Biello, who only took over the struggling previously-gay bar as a favor. So in a profession where participants often want to eschew attention, when Biello and son-in-law Cami found themselves helming the hottest nightclub in the city--they have to, um, adapt a bit.
Lots of celebrities (the Beatles, Cassius Clay, Hank Ballard, Frank Sinatra, and Sam Cooke, who memorably recorded "Twistin' the Night Away") and Mafiosi (Santo Trafficante, Vito Genovese, Frank Costello, Joe Bonanno) also waft in and out of the pages with some funny anecdotes about their times or connection to the club.
Biello was eventually assassinated by mobsters in the early '70s, and Cami had his own run-ins with the law. And unable to attract a new clientele. in an era of punk and rap. to its then-seedy Times Square location, the Peppermint Lounge closed for good in 1986.
The book end with an interview with Twist King and indefatigable promoter Chubby Checker, still out there in his-mid seventies performing at state fairs and oldies show. His incredibly delusional rants about his talent, place in music history, and status -- claiming he could be playing to crowds as big as the Stones, KISS, and Aerosmith if only radio would play his records -- are, in actuality, a bit sad.
But the story of the club, the music, and the thick-necked Italian-speaking guys who inadvertently made music history is an interesting one, a real (as Ronette and Lounge dancer Ronnie Spector calls it on a cover blurb) instance of "The Sopranos meets American Bandstand."
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