On the Unsuspected Significance of The Peppermint Twist

60 years ago (late 1961) a group named Joey Dee and the Starliters released a new variation on the Twist craze spawned by Chubby Checker the previous year. By January 1962, their single “The Peppermint Twist” went to #1 on the pop charts. If you’re like me, you’ve known the song all your life, without knowing or even wondering much about the “Peppermint” part of the song’s hook and title. Sounds random — but far from it.

Joey Dee (Joseph DiNicola) and the Starliters were the house band at a 45th Street joint called The Peppermint Lounge, which had opened in 1958. It was ostensibly a gay bar, and was at one point part of the Times Square empire of Genovese Crime Family member Matty the Horse Ianniello, son of Umberto Ianniello of Umberto’s Clam House. Matty the Horse owned or was part owner of many of the city’s gay bars, strip joints and peep shows. Though the Peppermint Lounge was not a very large venue (in fact, it was much like it sounds, kind of a seedy, and rather small Times Square area venue with a small stage, dance floor, bar, and dining area), Chubby Checker was booked there, and the Peppermint Lounge became a major locus for the Twist fad, as was alluded to in Sam Cooke’s 1962 tribute to the trend “Twistin’ the Night Away” (“Let me tell you ’bout a place somewhere up in New York way/ where the people are so gay”). “The Peppermint Twist” was featured in the Paramount film Hey Let’s Twist, in which Joey Dee starred, helping to goose the popularity of the single. Amusingly today everyone remembers the song but not the movie. At any rate, performers like the Ronettes, the Crystals, the Isley Brothers, and others performed at the club, and for whatever reason, the venue attracted not just teenagers, but show biz celebrities who came to partake of the Twist. In the mid ’60s the house band at the Peppermint Lounge was The Wild Ones starring Jordan Christopher.

Today the Peppermint Lounge is considered historically significant because hitherto most venues in NYC had catered to jazz and folk and the like. There had been one-off rock and roll and doo wop shows of course, but no joints that catered especially to the music. It also changed dance culture. The Twist was a dance you could do alone or with a gang of friends. It wasn’t about pairs. So it’s a precursor to all the dance clubs and discos that came after…it paved the way for Studio 54, for example. In 1980 a new version of the Peppermint Lounge opened at the original location, then moved to 100 Fifth Avenue. This incarnation presented mostly new wave and punk acts. It remained in operation through 1985.