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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 60s 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 60s. 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. Kennedys 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 hadnt
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. Clarks wife thought
Evans sounded like Fats Domino, so she named him Chubby Checker. Clark got
Checker to cover Ballards R& B minor hit (with the lyrics watered down). When
Checker did it along with twisting his hips on Clarks 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 didnt
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 hed hired so
he got them to get up and dance by the rails (this is where the 60s 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 2
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
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 50s and
early 60s, 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 Americas 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 60s.
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 Aint Gonna Eat My
Heart Out Anymore. They soon followed it up with Good Lovin at #1 and
Youd Better Run. Then came Ive 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 thats 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 Springsteens guitar
player and also from New Jersey, has been one of the biggest supporters for their
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 (Canadas Guess Who and BTO) and Mark Farner
(Grand Funk Railroad) -all part of one of Ringos touring All-Starr Bands in the
90s in Ottawa, Canada (which was also The Rascals guitarist, Gene Cornishs
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: