The other night the nostalgia channel Antenna (lots of reverse-mortgage ads) screened a double bill of Twist Around The Clock and Don’t Knock The Twist. The headin’-to-Broadway reunion of The Rascals, Once Upon A Dream, traces the group from its beginnings, including some members’ tenures with Joey Dee & The Starliters at the Peppermint Lounge. The newly-reconstituted Mavericks (http://emscee.com/foolsparadise/?p=1348) are on the road and killing with their “Guantanmera”>”Twist And Shout” medley. So a whole lot of twistin’ goin’ on lately, and I’ve spent the last couple of nights zipping through the dizzyingly entertaining book Peppermint Twist by John Johnson Jr. and Joel Selvin, the story of how organized crime and the pop music business linked arms in the early ‘60s to cash in on the Twist phenomenon, and how a nightclub in Manhattan’s Times Square area meant to be a little mob investment became the hippest place to be. It’s like if Hesh, the music industry mobster from The Sopranos, turned up in an early season of Mad Men, and everyone from Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali) to Sam Cooke to Murray The K to JFK to Morris Levy (the well-connected head of Roulette Records) to The Beatles made cameo appearances.
The book’s central figure, and collaborator, is Dick Cami — son-in-law of mob guy Johnny “Futto” Biello — who was given the Peppermint Lounge to operate and was as surprised as anyone when the crowds started to show up to shimmy to Joey Dee’s combo, crammed onto the tiny dance floor, while the young, pre-Spector Ronettes shook their stuff as the club’s in-house twist ensemble. Then the action cuts to Miami Beach, where The Beatles want to meet Twist originator Hank Ballard (he’s less than enthused), Clay turns up with his date Dee Dee Sharp (“Mashed Potato Time”), Frank Sinatra throws a nightclub chair off a balcony, Jayne Mansfield shows John Lennon her breasts, Nat King Cole sits in on keyboards with a twist band. It’s like a big pop-culture circus imagined by Martin Scorsese, and you can see why it was first developed as a movie idea: these are terrific scenes that capture that period between Kennedy’s inauguration and Beatlemania, when part of the culture was hanging on to its highballs at the Fontainebleau Hotel and the kids were turning on the radio and tuning intoAmerican Bandstand and Chubby Checker became, for a moment, Psy.
Bandstand was YouTube, “The Twist” was “Gangham Style,” and “Let’s Twist Again” became the first Pop Song Sequel: “Let’s Twist again, like we did last summer,” Checker suggested. “Do you remember when things were really hummin’?,” as though the events of a mere twelve months ago were already in the deep past and it was time to resurrect them. Things went really fast. The Twist didn’t last too long, and didn’t leave much of value behind. A few classic oldies (“Twist and Shout,” Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ The Night Away,” maybe Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Dear Lady Twist,” and if you want to tack on The Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” where the newly-acquired ability to do the Twist bestows on the singer potential desirability, and The Marvelettes’ “Twistin’ Postman,” go ahead), and some vintage film clips, and the distinction of kicking off the whole dancing-apart thing (says Chubby, although the Cha-Cha-Cha and the Stroll didn’t have much body contact). It’s sad to read the last chapter of Peppermint Twist, where Checker doesn’t seem to grasp what happened, why he isn’t given credit for, as he sees it, revolutionizing the culture.
It wasn’t about him, although he was the most visible practitioner of the Art of Twisting, the star of those two movies shown on Antenna the other night (Joey Dee also turned up in a film, Hey Let’s Twist, which is maybe infinitesimally better than the Checkers). His recording of “The Twist” was a faithful cover of the original by Hank Ballard and The Midnighters (down to the Ballardesque “eee-yah!” vocal punctuation) and became a hit mainly due to the promotional efforts of Dick Clark, and there were a couple of other Checker Twist hits (“Let’s Twist Again,” “Slow Twistin’” with Dee Dee), but the fad that started in 1960 had petered out by the time 1962 was over. Twist Culture eventually evolved into Go-Go Culture (a transition chronicled in Peppermint Twist), and there weren’t that many artifacts of the Twist Age that survived. Everyone in the mob and the music industry simply moved on to the next profitable things: what did they care if it was Ska, or Bossa Nova, or the British Invasion? You go where the customers are; that’s what pop is about, catching a ride on what’s now. The Twist was a moment when everything became silly (sitcoms and variety shows quickly pounced on it as comedy fodder), and it had to fizzle. There is a famous film clip of The Beatles at the Peppermint Lounge with Murray The K, Ringo out on the dance floor with one of the club’s dancers, and it’s like everyone is saying, enough with that, that was fun, now let’s go, we’ve got stuff to do.