I sit in a small music studio in Clearwater — overjoyed — talking with one of my rock ‘n’ roll heroes. He is Joey Dee, leader of a dynamic dance band called the Starliters. In 1961 he stood near the top of the music world.
He had a number one hit, Peppermint Twist, and starred in a movie about the dance sensation that was sweeping the nation. He toured America (including the South) with a mixed-race band, and in Stockholm shared top billing with a band called the Beatles.
He is 82 now, a longtime resident of Tampa Bay. Short in stature but big in charisma, he wears a dapper black and white suit, posing for photos that will be part of his upcoming autobiography, Peppermint Twist Chronicles.
I ask if I can have a photo taken with him. He says yes, but on one condition. I will sit at the piano and play his greatest hit. He will sing along.
Altar boy gone wild
I graduated from eighth grade in 1962 from a strict Catholic school on Long Island. All the kids got a green leather autograph book, and I still have mine. It is filled with messages from classmates and relatives. Every page carries a message, except one blank page in the middle.
In front there is a space to list your favorite things. I wrote that my favorite athlete was Mickey Mantle. For my favorite song, I listed Shout.
The original version of Shout was by the Isley Brothers. They had another great hit with Twist and Shout, which was my second-favorite song.
I first heard Shout as covered by Joey Dee and the Starliters. I owned an album of their music, recorded live from a dance club in New York City. It was wild. I played that album over and over in my bedroom until the needle almost wore through the grooves.
Shout was a hit for the Starliters, but it was not their biggest. Joey Dee had co-written a dance song that helped fuel a global phenomenon. It went all the way on the charts to No. 1, earning the band a gold record. The name of the song — and the dance — was the Peppermint Twist.
At the age of 13, we were invited to what were called boy/girl parties. The boys wore Canoe cologne, and the girls wore Ambush. The two fragrances smelled alike, so, as we slow danced in tiny basements, we embraced each other in a redolent vapor of sweet young love.
When it came time for fast dancing, the boys took a seat and watched the girls do some version of the jitterbug. Then came the Twist.
In the book Florida Soul, author John Capouya presents good evidence that the Twist was inspired by kids in Tampa dancing to the likes of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Ballard’s version of the song is soulful and sexy, not surprising for an artist who had pushed sexual innuendo to its limit in hits like Work With Me Annie.
Dick Clark, host of America Bandstand, thought the song would go over better with a more wholesome figure as the front man. The result was Chubby Checker, who covered the Ballard song and then followed with a string of hits, almost all about dances that did not require couples to touch.
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There was the Twist, the Mashed Potato, the Pony, the Fly, the Jerk, the Swim, the Monkey and many more. But the Twist was king, which meant it faced condemnation from moralists of the time. The same kind of folks who once condemned the waltz and the polka went after the Twist. Of course, they were right! The Twist was darn sexy.
The boys from New Jersey
Smack dab in the middle of the Twist craze stood an Italian lad from New Jersey born Joseph DiNicola. As a teenager, he formed a band called the Starliters, kids from the neighborhood who were on fire with the hot music of the day. In 1956, the band appeared on television on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, a show that introduced many young stars to American audiences.
Young Joey played the saxophone in the seven-piece band that performed a wild blues song called Barkin’ Up My Tree. At one point Joey took his sax, hopped on the upright bass and rode it like he was breaking a bronco. Mack — a straight arrow if there ever was one — understood the energy of this young band of working-class kids and showed his approval.
Over the years, DiNicola became Joey Dee. Although he grew up in the Italian-American doo-wop tradition, getting gigs required playing dance music.
Joey recruited musicians, including Dave and Eddie Brigati and Felix Cavaliere, who would become the Young Rascals. They would be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He helped introduce a dynamic girl group to the world — the Ronettes. As a teenager, Joe Pesci played the guitar briefly, as did a young Jimmy James, who one day would astonish the world as Jimi Hendrix.
By the time they recorded Peppermint Twist in 1961, the Starliters might have been the best party band in America. Every record they cut sounded like the crowd was having a ball. They wrote music, they had multiple lead singers, they played instruments with style, and they could dance, dance, dance.
A one-week gig at a New York City night club called the Peppermint Lounge turned into more than a year. Actor Merle Oberon stumbled into the club, heard the band and began Twisting. A gossip columnist nicknamed Cholly Knickerbocker wrote it up, and the Lounge became the “it” place of the early 1960s, wild, hip and gay.
The lounge held 200 people legally, but more than twice that typically were there. Customers included hundreds of celebrities. The list blows the mind, but let’s start with Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Kennedy, Andy Warhol, Leonard Bernstein and Jayne Mansfield. Picture John Wayne Twisting into Truman Capote.
On one of their American tours, the Beatles can be seen enjoying themselves at the Peppermint Lounge. They are packed in with the other patrons, smoking and drinking, Twisting the night away.
Invading the South
Joey Dee and the Starliters should be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. If the music, energy, dance craze and 1961 movie Hey, Let’s Twist! were not enough, they should be recognized for the model they established as a mixed-raced band, at their height with three Black performers and three, sometimes four, Italian-Americans.
Joey Dee and the Starliters toured America, including the South, during the height of the Jim Crow era. This meant staying in hotels in Black communities. It meant that band members of different races could not be conspicuous traveling together. On at least one occasion, the Black musicians hid in the back of a car under a blanket to avoid the attention of racists. Joey would perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, at the top of the marquee with Black comedian Moms Mabley. Jet magazine would honor him for his courage and leadership.
The Black Starliters included Carlton Lattimore on organ, Willie Davis on drums and the great Rogers Freeman on vocals.
Power of music
I am sitting at an old piano, banging out the opening chords of Peppermint Twist. Joey Dee stands beside me, a great smile on his face. Even at 82, the voice is energetic and familiar. They got a new dance and it goes like this … The name of the dance is the Peppermint Twist. Joey’s son Ronnie Dee and I sing backup. And then comes the chorus: Round and round … up and down … one two three twist, one two three jump!
I applaud him, we laugh and hug (both vaccinated), and I tell him I feel unworthy.
He offers a surprising compliment: “Roy, you can’t imagine how many piano players I played with over the years. You’re twice as good as a lot of them.” Wow. I look to the sky and thank my mom for all those lessons.
In the end, I show Joey Dee my eighth-grade autograph book. I ask if he would sign its one blank page.
“To Roy,” he wrote, “Music brought us together. Joey Dee.”