Peppermint Twist: The Mob, The Music & The Most Famous Dance Club Of The ‘60s by John Johnson, Jr. and Joel Selvin with Dick Cami (Thomas Dunne Books) is a 272-page gritty true crime gangster saga that intersects with ‘60s popular culture in a building on 45th Street in midtown Manhattan. It’s a delicious read filled with celebrities and notorious mob figures, a tale so out there it has to be true.

Johnny Biello is a high-ranking capo in the Genovese crime family. He owns a rundown building that fronts as a nightclub only so that he can safely conduct his illegal activities in a back room. It’s 1961: that strange netherworld between Elvis and The Beatles. Johnny’s resting under the sun working on his tan with son-in-law Dick Cami when they get a call that lines are starting to form around the block at the club and celebrities like Greta Garbo, Shirley MacLaine, Norman Mailer, Joe Namath and Andy Warhol are on the dance floor.

Johnny freaks. He wants no publicity! He has a loan sharking business to protect (among other illegal interests). What the hell is going on? This could ruin him. Johnny came up through the mob the old-fashioned way. When he was 14, he stood up to a member of the dreaded and feared Black Hand who would brutally extort money for “protection” from shop owners in his Bronx neighborhood. He wound up stabbing the guy. So all the attention being focused on his “club” was not exactly in his field of expertise. He didn’t know how to deal with it.

The fact of the matter is that a little-known bar band from New Jersey called Joey Dee & The Starliters took to heart a hit single by Chubby Checker called “The Twist,” and started packin’ ‘em in on a postage stamp-sized dance floor as the house band. Singer Sam Cooke visited and wrote “Twistin’ The Night Away.” Broadway stars would visit and then demand twist scenes be written into their musicals. The Ronettes got their start on that stage—as dancers. In fact, the whole concept of the go-go girl dancing in a cage was invented in that small room.

The dance itself became the hottest craze in an America starved for something new. First Lady Jackie Kennedy twisted in the White House. Biello opened a second club in Florida where black performers could perform but not hang out at the club. The Civil Rights Bill would ultimately be put into law in 1964 but in ’62 and ’63, when legends like Jackie Wilson and Chuck Berry played there, they couldn’t, under law, sit at the bar after their performance and have a drink. In fact, “beverage agents” would regularly patrol the perimeter to make sure there were no blacks mingling with the paying customers. If so, the club could lose its license. Story after story fill these pages in anecdotal action where you get to briefly rub elbows with people like Elvis, Sinatra, Ali (when he was Clay) and Jimmy Hoffa.

The craze ends within 18 months but the story of the club continues long into the future decades. First it turns into a gay bar. Then Jim Fouratt—the mastermind of such cool clubs as Danceteria and Hurrah—buys the building and reopens it in the ‘80s for another successful run as The New Peppermint Lounge, moving downtown to 14th Street and hosting such acts as Iggy Pop and the Patti Smith Group as celebrities like Mick Jagger look on from a roped-off balcony.

By ’86, it had closed its doors forever.

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