Making the wiseguys dance
Was Ringo Starr genuinely lucky not to get whacked by a Mafia hitman named Romeo “Scarface” Martin when the Beatles visited the Miami branch of the Peppermint Lounge in 1964? That’s what John Johnson Jr and Joel Selvin, the authors of Peppermint Twist, would like you to believe. Their new book, which tells the story behind the club where the Twist first became a sensation, comes complete with a colourful endorsement from Ronnie Spector, who danced there before she became a Ronette: “The Sopranos meets American Bandstand!”
That’s not an entirely misleading summary. In the end Romeo Martin, despite being infuriated by his girlfriend’s crush on Ringo, didn’t try to whack the mop-topped drummer. But plenty of others meet an unpleasant end in the course of the story, not least Johnny Biello, a caporegime with the Genovese crime family. Biello was the undeclared owner of the Peppermint Lounges in New York and Miami and the father-in-law of Dick Cami, who managed the two clubs during their heyday, before they were sold in the mid-60s. It is Cami (born Camillucci) whose testimony provides the authors with the bulk of their material. He, of course, never whacked anyone, although he considered it once or twice.
A couple of years ago I had some fun marking the 50th anniversary of the Twist’s rise to prominence by writing this feature for the Guardian‘s Weekend magazine. I can remember back in 1962 going to see the exploitation film Hey, Let’s Twist, which featured Joey Dee and the Starliters performing the hit that made the 45th Street club famous — or, rather, even more famous, since it had already acquired gossip-column notoriety for attracting an A-list clientele including Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Greta Garbo and Norman Mailer to a joint that could accommodate fewer than 200 people and had formerly doubled as a leather bar and Mob meeting place. The book’s authors add as much detail as they can unearth to a rather slender story, fleshing it out with a lot of true-crime material gleaned from Cami.
Interesting musical figures flit in and out, including Hank Ballard, the first man to record “The Twist”; Chubby Checker, who had the hits; the great guitarist Lonnie Mack, who backed the singer Troy Seals at the Miami club; Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, unsuccessfully trying to replace the fading Twist with a Ska craze in 1964; and Nat King Cole — who, according to the authors, spent a week sitting in on keyboards with the Peppermint Lounge house band in Florida in order to learn how to play rock and roll. But they are seriously outnumbered by the wiseguys.
* Peppermint Twist is published in the US by Thomas Dunne Books/St Martin’s Press. The title of this piece is adapted from Making the Wiseguys Weep, David Evanier’s excellent biography of the New Jersey-born singer Jimmy Roselli (1925-2011), a perennial favourite with mobsters. The copy of “Peppermint Twist Pts 1 and 2” is from the author’s collection.