In October 1961, Dick Cami and his Mob boss father-in-law Johnny Biello hurried home to New York to witness for themselves the mayhem that had broken out in their seedy Times Square nightclub. The whole world had been shaken by a new dance craze called the Twist and ground zero was the Peppermint Lounge.
The Peppermint was supposed to be a front for Biello's racketeering, but the place was suddenly jammed with socialites and celebrities, packed ass-to-elbow on the tiny dance floor, while mounted police patrolled the crowd overflowing the sidewalks and blocking traffic.
After a lifetime in the Mob, starting out as a bootlegger in the Dutch Schultz gang and scouting Las Vegas with Bugsy Siegel, Biello suddenly found himself in the middle of rock and roll history. For fifty years, Cami sat on the story of the Mob's role in one of the 20th century's most unusual social revolutions. He alone knew the secret history of Genovese capo Johnny Biello and the Twist, outlined in lurid and sometimes rollicking detail in Peppermint Twist ($25.99, Thomas Dunne Books.)
In the Twist, it is possible to see the beginnings of everything that was the '60s -- sexual liberation, civil rights, draft protests. The young Kennedys were barely settled in the White House and the Soviets were massing troops on their side of the East German border, but all anybody could talk about that October was this crazy new dance.
With powerful forces inside the Five Families trying to kill Biello, he decided to double-down on his unexpected good fortune. He and his young son-in-law, Cami, quickly opened a second Peppermint Lounge in Miami Beach, which was instantly greeted as the nation's top rock and roll club during the golden age of the music.
It was a place where mobsters danced enthusiastically with the kids, where Nat King Cole jammed with the house band to get a feel for rock and roll, and where a young heavyweight named Cassius Clay hung around before the Liston fight with "Mashed Potatoes" singer Dee Dee Sharp. The girls who would become the Ronettes started out at the Peppermint as rail dancers, forerunners to the caged and coiffed Go-Go dancers of later vintage.
Perhaps the high point of the Mob's brush with rock and roll occurred when the Beatles came to see Hank Ballard, who wrote the song that got everyone dancing in the first place. A paid killer's threat of violence -- his girlfriend was infatuated with Ringo -- was averted when Cami assigned him to guard the band. Afterward, mobsters lined up to buy the chairs the Beatles sat in for their kids.
Supported by hundreds of pages of FBI documents, the tale follows the strangest crew of thugs and hustlers to ever run a rock and roll club; from the bar manager who didn't know The Coasters from coasters to Johnny's brother Scatsy, the foul-mouthed troll who ruled the club's kitchen and fractured the King's English. Behind it all was Johnny Biello, the gentleman mobster trying to navigate his way into a quiet, peaceful retirement from the organization that he'd grown to despise as a bunch classless thugs who, in his words, "couldn't rob a blanket from a horse."
In Peppermint Twist, Cami also opened his personal photo files of never-before-seen action shots from the stage of the World Famous Peppermint Lounge in Miami Beach, when rock and roll was young and dangerous, the South was still segregated, and Miami was a playground in the sun.
The Twist changed everything. The world was never the same again. Not for anybody, but especially not for Johnny Biello.
See images from the heydays of the Peppermint Lounge: