Joel Selvin and I go back. Way back to the mid-sixties when I failed him in English at Berkeley High School. Selvin deserved the “F,” but the world did nothing to deserve the wonderful writing career he went on to pioneer for himself as pop music writer for the SF Chronicle (and the world). His entertaining and insightful commentary has made one of the richest periods of popular music innovation in world history even richer than listening and dancing to the likes of Elvis, the Beatles, and all the rest.
In past works he’s traced the racial and cultural fault lines of the industry, explored the influence of drugs on both performers and audiences, and helped define the dynamics of all the energy fields pulsing through the society during some its most tumultuous eras. In Peppermint Twist, Selvin and his co-author John Johnson, Jr. have taken on the task of illuminating not only a significant piece of the rock ‘n’ roll story but as the subtitle vividly proclaims–The Mob, the Music, and the most FAMOUS dance club of the ’60’s. So, in this book we’ve returned to the era during which Joel earned his “F,” but under much happier circumstances.
At first glance, you might think this is a book for oldsters who could develop severe spinal problems from trying to execute the dance we loved back in the day. (In fact, chiropractors were among the greatest critics, and perhaps among the greatest financial benefactors, of the craze.) You’d be way wrong. Why? The mobster component. The heart of the tale is told, through Selvin and Johnson, by one Dick Cami, son-in-law to Mafia Capo John Biello, and the narrative is not only about the club, but about the wise guy ties to it, and by extension to the entire music industry.
The original Peppermint Lounge, a hole-in-the wall off Times Square in the days before it was scrubbed into a theme park, was a rock club financed by the aforementioned gangster, Biello, who needed another place to park some cash and generate more. The music and club business were naturals for the mob–lots of free-flowing cash, hard to trace. And then there was the star struck thing as well. By an improbable series of events, the peppermint became ground zero for the Twist Explosion. An A-D list of celebrities and ordinary rocksters lined up 4-deep on the sidewalk every night for the chance to gyrate on the teensy dance floor and experience the latest melodies and beats. Before it was over, the name and the music had generated dozens of hits and a series of bands and knock-off Peppermint Clubs (No one bothered to copyright the name.) from NYC to Miami to Hollywood.
Dick Cami, who had been an aspiring music producer and manager since his teens became the impresario who discovered and promoted the acts and managed both the New York and the Miami “Franchises,” and The Peppermint Twist is ultimately his story. He knew the wise guys, and he has a string of anecdotes longer than a hit man’s rap sheet.
Combine Cami’s stories with what Johnson and Selvin gleaned from FBI agents (Biello was under constant surveillance for years before his (unsolved) assassination.), from wives and other family members, and from the entertainers themselves and you have a blockbuster tale that’s true history, with emphasis on the “story” part of the word.
Perhaps the authors occasionally exaggerate the impact of the twist on western civilization, but they certainly convinced me–one who lived through the era and partook often–that there was a lot more to this little dance than I ever imagined. Hell of a book, guys. If I could expunge the “F,” Joel, I’d do it, but with what you’ve accomplished since, why bother?