By Mike Greenblatt
Joey Dee had to smile. He was looking out at the celebrities from the stage at The Peppermint Lounge. Judy Garland was doing the twist. Shelley Winters, Shirley Maclaine, Ava Gardner, John Wayne and Nat King Cole were drinking, laughing, dancing, romancing and making the most out of making the scene. How did this small, run-down, mob-owned nightclub on 45th Street in New York City get to be the center of the universe?
It was 1962.
Long before Studio 54, The Peppermint Lounge packed ’em in tight. Actors, singers, athletes and politicians rubbed shoulders with the Mob.
The were all doing The Twist.
“Peppermint Twist,” the song, had knocked “The Twist” by Chubby Checker out of the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100. Checker’s version was a cover of a 1958 B-side by Hank Ballard (the song’s author) & The Midnighters. Joey Dee would honk on his alto, throw his sax down to sing, jump into the crowd and twist away with the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy (who had brought The Twist into the White House).
Never in the history of pop music was there a dance that caught America’s attention and libido like The Twist. The Frug? The Popeye? The Swim? The Fly? The Hully Gully? The Mashed Potato? You’d have to go back to The Charleston in the 1920s or The Tango in the 1890s to find such a seismic dancefloor explosion.
At the center of it all was one Joseph DiNicola from Passaic, New Jersey.
“It took me two hours to write ‘The Peppermint Twist’ with Henry Glover in the back of an empty Peppermint Lounge one Sunday afternoon in September 1961. It took me 11 years to write Peppermint Twist Chronicles with J Kevin Morris. I remember the day I said to my wife, ‘I’m going to write a book.’ She said, ‘You sure you want to?’ She knew if I did, I would make it real. Not very flattering to her or me. Hurtful even.
“If you don’t want me to do it, I won’t.
“If it’s true, make it real. Put everything in.
“And I did.”
Some of the stories are almost hard to believe.
“I wouldn’t believe them myself but they’re all the God’s honest truth,” says Dee, now living in Florida.
It gets better.
After The Peppermint Lounge closed its doors for good in 1965, Joey Dee opened up his own club, one block north, on 46th Street. He called it The Starliter. There came a time when he was short one guitarist. Drummer Jimmy Mays told him he had heard of a kid who was in the bands of Little Richard and The Isley Brothers but was in-between bands at the moment, having been fired from both bands for being much too flamboyant and stealing the show almost every night.
“Bring him to the house in Lodi (New Jersey) and I’ll audition him.”
So Mays traipses into the city and finds the musician living in a seedy dump of a hotel with hot and cold running cockroaches. He was going by the name of Maurice James. He went by many names back then. He had been honorably discharged from the U.S. Army after completing his paratrooper training at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. He had yet to become Jimi Hendrix.
“So, Jimi comes to my house in Jersey to audition. My drummer Jimmy and nephew Johnny had their doubts after picking him up at The St. James Hotel, a real dump. They told me it was filthy dirty with leftover bits of rotting food all over the room. Hey, he was a struggling musician. And he was living a struggling musician’s life.
“He comes to my garage in Lodi where I had all my equipment set up. He didn’t even have a guitar case. He just held his guitar by the neck in his hand. He had a bandanna wrapped around his forehead and even though he was totally unknown, he already looked and acted like a rock star.”
“What would you like me to play, Mr. Dee?”
“‘First of all, it’s Joey. Second of all, just play what you like.’ So, he starts playing some Curtis Mayfield. I’m an R&B guy my whole life and that was right in my wheel-house. I don’t remember if it was ‘People Get Ready’ or ‘Keep on Pushing’ but it was from the catalog of The Impressions. I noticed the guitar was stringed upside-down with the low E up top instead of on the bottom. That didn’t matter to me. He played so mellifluously, so beautifully. He didn’t even play two minutes. I was enjoying it so much! I would’ve hired him after the third note!
“‘Man, that was great. You got the gig.’
“In my book, there’s some great stories about Jimi that people don’t know about. We took him to a women’s beauty parlor once while on the road in Buffalo, New York. He demanded to get his hair done! The cat was so fastidious about his hair! Then there was the time he dressed in drag. I mean, we were all at the top of our game in the rock and roll scene and, man, it got really raucous there for a long while with sex but no drugs. I always frowned on the drugs. Didn’t do ’em myself and I forbade the guys in the band to do any. I’m no saint by any means. I sure drank a lot. But I never did drugs and that includes pot. Ever. Jimi smoked a little pot. I knew that. But certainly not while he was getting ready to go onstage with me. Or never while we were in a vehicle together driving from one gig to the next. That was a no-no. It just wasn’t permissible in my band.
“I had stringent rules. You were to take no drinks onstage. You’re not to smoke onstage. You had to look really good onstage. Have your suit and tie on at all times. Those were my rules. And this is what I lived by. It was my credo… my mantra. I would tell every new member, ‘Look, this is how it is, and if you can’t handle it, you can’t be in my band.’ Jimi was good. He needed the gig. And he was smart. He had a great sense of humor, too. We kept having so many little asides just between the two of us. We’d be looking at the girls in the audience. So many beautiful women! And he was certainly a Grade-A ladies’ man. He had that certain magic to him. I could tell right away, over and above his great playing. He had a presence to him that people naturally flocked to. A real chick magnet. But no one is 100 percent and my drummer Jimmy, on a few occasions, took a few chicks away from Jimi Hendrix!
“I encouraged Hendrix to do what got him fired from his previous two bands. And, man, he rocked it. It got to the point where he was so great at these solos, I started calling them ‘complicated musical events.’ That’s when word got out about this dude. I knew in my heart that this guy was so special. So, I started having him go on solo before our set even started. He would do five or 10 minutes. Whatever he wanted to do. At first, he was shy about it.
“What do you want me to play, Joey?”
“Just go out there and play anything. Play!”
“And I’ll be darned if he didn’t please the house every time. Folks would go nuts for him. No rhythm section. Just him and his guitar. And he blossomed. Did I see something there? I think I did.”
Ultimately, Hendrix, who had been composing the whole time in his ratty room, would quit Joey Dee & The Starliters to finally form his own band. But not before Chas Chandler, bassist of The Animals, saw him perform. He was blown away. Chas wanted desperately to quit his band and go into management. He started following Hendrix around Greenwich Village at small bar gigs, and ultimately whisked him off to England, hooked him up with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell and the rest, as they say, is history.
You might say Joey Dee has an ear for talent.
Similar to jazz drummer Art Blakey, whose band the Messengers were an incubator for future stars like Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Chuck Mangione and Terence Blanchard, Joey Dee & The Starliters fostered such precious talent as Jimi Hendrix, The Ronettes, The Rascals, and even actor Joe Pesci (who played guitar).
But it’s Hendrix who Joey Dee remembers most fondly.
“He started out playing just rhythm guitar. I asked him to sing some background ‘bop shoo bops’ and he was awful. Couldn’t sing a lick. But I started having him play a solo in some of the songs. We did ‘Charlie Brown’ by The Coasters and he went wild on it. Another one, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ by Bill Haley & His Comets, he took it to a new dimension. We did plenty of covers in those days. Man, he shined! Perfect! Funny thing, though, after every solo, I would tell him, ‘Wow, that was really great, man!’ He’d always say, ‘No, it could’ve been better.’ He was never satisfied with anything he ever did onstage with me. This was a guy who slept at night still clutching his guitar close to his body. At least he did for that one year on the road in my band. Every waking hour of his, I’d see him picking that electric guitar off in a corner somewhere, no amp, you could hardly hear it. But he could. He never stopped.”
No story of Joey Dee could be complete without the mention of his most famous opening act, The Beatles.
“I did a 1963 gig in Stockholm, Sweden. I pull up to the venue for this one-nighter, see the poster outside with our name in huge letters and then, underneath, in much smaller type, ‘The Beatles.’ I had already heard of them as we had gigged at The Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany. Everybody worked there from Fats Domino to Little Richard and Chuck Berry. The Beatles hadn’t made it yet and they worked there, too. I played The Star-Club in ’63 twice. Upon my second gig there, people started telling me how great they were. I didn’t pay too much attention to it.
“But I wound up meeting them in Sweden during their soundcheck. They only had one hit record, ‘Please Please Me.’ But as opening act for me, they tore the house down. They were fabulous. I remember warning my keyboardist, Felix Cavaliere, who would leave me to go start The Rascals, ‘We better bring our A-Game tonight because these guys are kicking butt and I don’t want to play second-fiddle to anybody.’ So, on we went. We had more hits than they did, were more famous, but they did get their due. By the end of the night, we got ours as well. Maybe it was a stand-off. I think we edged them out by a nose. We won the race. That’s the way I wanted it. We had to be the best we could possibly be on any given night. But I have to tell you, they really decimated the audience. I was impressed. So, I went into their cramped dressing room. All four of ’em were there.
“Listen, you guys were so great, I’d like to pay my respects by throwing a party at the hotel tonight.”
And I did. It was replete with wine, women and song. We had it all, man. And it was a great party. Now it’s really late, almost sunrise, and as they’re stumbling around getting ready to leave, because they had a gig somewhere in Sweden the next day, as I did, too, one of ’em said, ‘Joey, we’d like to thank you for your graciousness in taking us in to your hotel room and inviting us to your party. We’d like to repay the favor. We’re hoping to come to America soon and if and when we do, we just have to go to The Peppermint Lounge and see you guys.’ These boys were real sweethearts! But, hey, I’m from Jersey. I believed they were really going to come to The Pep like a rabbit can’t run, you catch my drift? But they did! All four of ’em. I loved those boys. They had such a great sense of humor. They had that Cockney way about them. Tough but cool. Their Liverpool brashness and me being a Jersey wise-guy really meshed. They fed off of that and I played off their humor. They just loved to laugh, really good guys. All four.”
Joey Dee admits the last few decades have been “sub-par.” He still does the occasional gig, usually as the opening act on an oldies show, and he still does what he’s done his whole life, make people dance. But Peppermint Twist Chronicles: My True Story of Sex, Rock & Roll, Jimi Hendrix, Fighting Racism, And the Mob; A Tell-All About The Beatles, The FBI, The Rascals, Joe Pesci, Don Rickles, Dick Clark and More is one of the most fun autobiographies of the year.