Transcript: Transcript Joey Dee and the Starliters: ’60s Music Stardom


Hi, great to have you with me. Do you go back this far?

I have no objection to the twist as such, but it does represent some kind of change in our standards. What has happened to our concepts of beauty and decency and morality? That

was President Dwight Eisenhower with his reaction to the latest dance craze sweeping America. It was the twist. The year was 1961 and a little known pop group called Joey D and the starlight is was at the heart of this phenomenon, because they had just recorded the peppermint twist. Got a new dance and it go like the name of the dance December man was like this. The Godfather of the twist, Joey Dee joins me today is my special guest. A pleasure to meet you. Did you get all dressed up specially for me?


Well, I’ll tell you what, in 1962 I was considered one of the top 10 Best dressed men in America. So I just want him to show off. I’m also gonna have sandy I like to dress


for those of you who can’t see what Jody is wearing. Let me describe it for you. He has on a white shirt and a white tie and a bright red jacket. Very swish. He looks fabulous.


Thank you so much.


I’ve been reading lots about you and I’ve had a bit of a look at your book. Also. I want to talk about that soon. But your rise to fame and fortune is an incredible story. I know you must have told it 1000 or more times. But for people who don’t know about you, can you tell us a little bit about Joey Dee and the Starliters.


I can tell you a lot about Joeyand his Starliters. I’m a Jersey boy. I grew up with people like Frankie Valli and the Shirelles and Joe Pesci, I went to high school with the Shirelles.


The Shirelles were an all girl group that really rocked the early 60s. They were formed in New Jersey in 1957 and known for their soft sweet harmonies. Their music was a blend of pop rock and r&b, especially doowop and smooth, Uptown soul that appealed to listeners right across the board way before Motown had ever become a crossover pop phenomenon. The girls were four high school friends, Doris Ali, Shirley and Beverly.


They got me my first record contract and five came from Passaic, New Jersey. So that gave me access to all the record companies that were around at the time. And back then there were 100 independent record companies. I started my band in Passaic. I had the best band in New Jersey. We had contests every month on who is the best band and we always won. It

was 1958 We went to a place called the peppermint lounge in New York City, where I was doing a version of Hank Ballard’s twist. And we get some society people come in because the peppermint Lounge is located on West 45th Street in Manhattan, New York City. And it’s an honour to theatre district. So one rainy evening, Merle Oberon, the wonderful actress came in with Charlie Knickerbocker a newspaper writer, and they came in to have a drink and I was on stage and at the time, very fortunate for me, I was doing live version of the twist, and the kids were dancing it I had taught it to them. And Merle Oberon actually got up on stage and dance with some of the kids. Charlie Knickerbocker wrote about it in the daily newspaper in New York City about the peppermint lounge, and Merle Oberon doing his dance. And the place just became famous, literally overnight.


I’ll just pause you there if you don’t mind, because I want to get back to that. Let’s just go back to high school. Well, you already making music in high school. You said you went to high school with the Shirelles. They were obviously making music already to give us a bit of a picture a bit of a description of what was going on in those days for you.


Okay, well, I started a group when I was about 10 years old, it was called the thunder trio. I played harmonica at the Tony Shooto playing drums. And John Yannick playing guitar. And that’s what we sounded like thunder. And we played a lot of pokers because the town I lived in Passaic, New Jersey along with the Shirelles they had a Polish People’s Home, and they would have the greatest Polka bands in the world perform in this venue. So I was enamored with the polka music. So I started playing harmonica, and I started playing pocos. But I love all kinds of music. So but that was the genesis of Joe again is starlight.


You’re not from a Polish background yourself. Well, my parents were both born in Italy. I’m first generation American.


Right? Your love of music was obvious from an early age. Were you always destined to be a musician and entertainer Do you think or did your parents have other things in mind for you?


I had gone to Teachers College in Wayne, New Jersey, Patterson Teachers College, and I wanted to be a history and English major. I want to do become a professor. Eventually, that was my goal. So when, while I was going to school, I was making money on the side by playing saxophone and having a band and I love music. So much it i i took a hiatus of six months. And my mother was very disappointed because she wanted me to become a professor of English and history and I said, Mom, I’m gonna give it six months if I don’t make it in six months. I promise you I’ll go back to school and get my degree and become a professor hopefully. So she reluctantly agreed and during that six months, I went from local bars and V Stroz in New Jersey to become the number one band in New Jersey and got booked into the peppermint lounge and we had that wonderful event with Merle Oberon coming in and the trawling Knickerbocker writing about it just a dream come true, incredibly serendipitous


that they should be there that night. That performance should get all of that publicity, and you became an overnight sensation. What did an overnight sensation look like then?


Well, on any given night, Judy Garland would be there. She was there every night. I fight dance with with her several times. And we became friends. Shirley MacLaine, John Wayne, Nat King Cole, The Beatles came in. I’ll tell you a little aside about the Beatles in a moment. Rolling Stones came in Marilyn Monroe, anyone who is famous during the early 1960s came to the peppermint lounge. It was just an incredible occurrence for a kid who came from a blue collar family and in a small town in New Jersey. It’s okay to do this was it because the twist was so new had you brought the twist to this new audience? Well,


I had an integrated band, which was pretty much unheard of back in the early 60s Because we had our situation with racism back then. And I didn’t have any issues with that because my parents and being a first generation American, the town I grew up in Passaic was very mixed, coloured and ethnicity kind of place and wonderful place I grew up and I say, my high school was probably a third black American, the back then we call them negros with the the name change to Afro American now, I don’t like the hyphenated American, either you’re American or you’re not. It’s not like I’m Italian American. My parents were from Italy. But I’m, I’m an American, and that’s how I looked at it. My parents taught me there are good people and bad people don’t judge him by any other way, by their color, or their religion or anything else like that. So that was my mantra growing up, and I’ve taught that to my children and my grandchildren, and even my great grandchildren now great lesson. Everyone should learn that but did you introduce the twist to all of these people?

Yeah, so by doing this that and having a format of the dance became the number one dance it became so popular after Hank Ballard did it Chubby Checker did it and made it a number


and do that i reincarnated in a sense by making it famous world famous in the peppermint lounge. Because they rerelease Chubbies record and it became number one again on Billboard. And as the first and only time, the same record has become number one on Billboard, except for maybe White Christmas by being for us. Amazing was a great happiness and occurrence for me being at the right place at the right time and, and luck had so much to do with it. I wouldn’t do so. So fortunate to be in the premier lounge that particular night and during the song at that particular time when Merle Oberon came in so just fantastic.


Dreams really can come true, can’t they?


And I’ll tell you the little story about about the Beatles. In 1963. I did a 10 country tour of Europe, and one of the countries was Sweden, and one night in October. In 1963, the Beatles were my opening act. So they were so great. And I thought they was so fabulous. And I had heard about him because I worked at a place called the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. And so did they, but I never worked at the same time that they did. But I heard so much about him. And when we got to Stockholm, we became quite friendly. I went to the soundcheck and I said, Wow, these guys are great. But at the time, they only had one hit record, it was full, I think it was Please Please Me, and I just was overwhelmed.


That evening, I invited them to my suite in the hotel for us in Stockholm, Sweden. And I said, I’d love to have you come in, we’ll have some drinks and booze. I had a couple of girls in my group at the time. We had a marvelous evening together. And George told me as they were leaving, were coming to the states in January of 64. And I said, Well, why don’t you stop by the premier lounge, he says, I promise you will be there. And being a little skeptic. And coming from being a Jersey boy. That’s how we are. We’re a little skeptical. A little little pump blue. And what happened? It was just a funny situation. But anyway, I’m starting to think at some of the events of that night. But anyway, George said, we’re going to come and see. And I’ll be done in January of 1964. All four Beatles came into the lounge to see God in the saw. I was. I was so so so impressed, and so grateful that they showed up. How incredible they were just making it they just had done the Ed Sullivan Show, but they’re showing up meant a lot to me.


It’d be pretty cool wouldn’t it to have the Beatles dropped by your club to see you play. But Joey Dee is pretty special as you’re about to find out.


Thanks for hanging in. Joey Dee has been telling us about the night that actor Merle Oberon hit the dance floor at the peppermint lounge to do the twist. After word got out. Crowds began to line the streets out front of the club every night wanting to do same.


It was just such a phenomenon Saturday that this would happen to a little kid from Jersey and playing the right music, but I was so determined that I had these euros in my corner. They got me my first record deal. I didn’t have the best singing voice far from it. I wasn’t the best sax player, far from it. But I was a good businessman. This was my way of making it in the music field. I had a band but I couldn’t sing. I was a good background singer. And I was blessed with a great ear. So I went out and I got Rogers Freeman was a black man. And he was in a duo group called the vibrant tones. And I got David Bugatti. Who was you might know the name Bugatti from the rascals his younger brothers Eddie and David sang on all the recordings. But anyway David was with a group full of high fives and they were also do wop groups


the will need the group’s you can’t go in a bar club and seeing DUA and make money. I had the band so I was smart enough to go out and get the two best singers in New Jersey. And they were my lead singers and I sang background. And I was singing number here and there rock and roll number. David Bugatti was seeing Johnny Mathis Elin. We will lead John drifters, coasters, and Rogers saying, for your love by Ed Townsend, and whenever they saying we rocked the house, and we started out backing up. People like Frankie Avalon, Bobby ryedale. Connie Francis, because we were the number one band in New Jersey. And each year there’d be a contest on the number one band New Jersey and each year we wanted, we couldn’t miss because I had the two best singers and I had the best musicians. I had the best man. And it was just incredible.


We had a band contest. And Joe Pesci was in a band opposite us. And he came in second, three years in a row. And he got sick and tired of it. So he quit his band and join my band. I actually had Joe Pesci, who won an Academy Award in my band. And in 95, this is even crazier. I had Jimi Hendrix is my guitar player. So I have here I have a guy who’s got the English, rock and roll of me, the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And he played with my group for a year. And we had such great times together. He had a great sense of humoir. Jimi was the best guitar player in the world as far as I’m concerned.


But the music you were doing was so unlike anything that Jimi Hendrix went on to do, wasn’t it?


It’s just incredible. What happened was I was in need of a guitar player. And I had a gentleman by the name of Jimmy Mays, he was from Chicago. And I asked him Can you find me a guitarist? He said, Yeah, but he might be a brother. And I said, I don’t care what it is brother sister. What? I want a great guitar player. He said, Well, he has his do just came off the road with the Isley Brothers in Little Richard. And I said, Well, he’s got to be great. And if it was with the Little Richard and the Isley Brothers.

I said Bring them to my house. I’ll have my nephew drive or pick you up in a city with with the other Jimmy. And we’ll audition them at my house. So Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Mays and my nephew Johnny, come to the house comes in starts playing. He says What would you like me to play Mr. D? I said first of all, my name is Joey. Secondly, I’d like you to play what you like. And he started playing Curtis Mayfield and I’m an r&b guy all my life. And I said wow, I should you don’t have to play anymore. That’s good enough for me. This is 1965 I knew all of his songs Amen and all he He’s just so special. That here’s what he does. 1965 I’m in my house with my two sons, who are four and five at the time. He lights up a joint, a celebratory joint, in my house. Now my wife comes in from the hairdresser says, What the heck do you think she used for flower? She’s a Jersey girl. And she was very, very upset. And she chased him out of my house. She says, Get the hell out of my house. She chased Jimi Hendrix out of my home. So as he’s leaving, I ran to the door and I says, you got the gig. I’ll see you Friday. I closed the door and I had some route with my wife. And I thought it was very disrespectful. And, and she was certainly right about that. And we had the two small children there. And that was not the right thing for him to do. But he was so happy that he got the gig. And I was so happy to to have him as my guitars, that here’s what we did. He was so great. And I knew it immediately. I would have him go out onstage before we do a gig. And just play guitar. I said, What do you want me to play? Let’s just just play for the people play a couple of minutes before we go out. And he played and Wild Wild the audience because that’s how great he was. And that’s how great I thought he was so I’m I’m happy that I was right about that.


Leading up to that job, you done a couple of appearances on movie soundtracks as well. You

know, we did two movies, one called hey, let’s twist and one cool two tickets to Paris, which were great. And I have a very storied career. I had the Ronit come into the peppermint lounge one night. And they asked if they can sing with me while I’m on stage, but I saw them dancing out there. I said, even if they don’t say well, they look great. And they could dance. So I had them come up on stage. And we did a version of Rachel’s what I say and they tore the house down, and they could sing and I hired them and they were in my room. So here’s another three people from the hall of fame that were members of Jody in a stall out is then I put together group which later became the young rascals. I had fields capillary. Eddie Bugatti, the younger brother, David Bugatti, and Jean corners. Three of the four rascals the only one I did that was Dino Donnelly, but I had another drummer Ricky chanin, I thought was really good. So they started playing together in my nightclub i had a nightclub in New York City called Joey Dee saw later they were just fabulous. They went out on their own and that never bothered me. I always felt honoured that these people For that I had my group musicians and singers and dancers, they went on to bigger sod. And I did, they became members of rock Rose Hall of Fame. And I was so pleased and proud of that, that I was able to assist. I felt really good about it. And of course, you’ve had so many hit singles as Joey D and the starlight as to we don’t even have enough time to touch on all the top 40 successes that you’ve had. But if I could ask you, can you point to one that’s closest to your heart?


Well, I did the motion picture two tickets to Paris. And then that movie, we needed love song. So Henry Glover, who was my co writer for peppermint twist. He and I wrote department twist. He got Johnny Nash to write me a love song. And Johnny Nash is a wonderful singing. I don’t know if you’ve heard. Of course I have. I can see clearly now. Absolutely, dude. And yes, a wonderful singer. And he wrote a song called What kind of love is this for me? And that’s my favorite Joe Idina sighs So it’s entirely different from all the other stuff I did. From shout in. Peppermint to us and for us, and yeah, yeah. Which was number one in Europe. Because I guess German people thought it meant yes, yes. Radio Luxembourg. So much success. I had more success than I deserve believe.

Oh, no, I don’t think so. I think you said something very apt. Just a little while ago when you said you were a really good businessman. So you were smart enough to realize what your strengths were and smart enough to realize what your shortcomings were and you fill the space around you with people that would take up those positions. So you certainly deserved all the success that you had. How long did that run of success last? Well, the first couple of years were success after success after success and meeting all the the wonderful people I got to meet so many great people it just fantastic. The successes were great. And but when we had the English invasion, we called it in 64 with The Beatles and The stones, and Peter Noone. Oh, who’s a good friend of mine and we work a lot together here in the states now from Herman’s Hermits. You they just took over the entire major venues, all the big places, and I was relegated to doing all of the ends and, and small hotels and some local bars. And I went from you know, the penthouse to the outhouse pretty much. But it’s showbusiness. That’s that’s what it was. The Beatles would probably had at the top 10 records in the country at the time at one time. So I was pleased for them. But they did put me in the backseat of the of the car. Yeah, they did that to a lot of accident.


I went from a Rolls Royce to a jalopy but it’s okay. That’s show business and I’m okay with that.


Will you always okay with that? How did you handle it at the time?


Well, at the time, it was a financial burden for me because I wasn’t making the money that I was used to making. I was making maybe a third or fourth or maybe even a fifth of what I was making. Plus I had an integrated van. And there were very few places even north of the Mason Dixon Line, which is this way the south meets the North. A lot of people didn’t like the idea that I had an integrated van. But I wasn’t changing it because I went for quality and that they were very qualified. I was a person who listened to his parents, number one. And I had all great great people in the band. And like I said, it didn’t matter of their color or ethnicity. I was very fortunate, Sandy, you were very clever. Over the years, various members of the Starliters has come and went. As Joe has already mentioned, the group was able to boast Jean Cornish Felix Cavalier, Jimi Hendrix and Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers. He was indeed a pretty savvy businessman.


What was the impetus for you to write the book?


Well, it took me 11 years to write this book. And the reason I wrote it was because I thought I had a great story. And I still think I have a great story. Well, just some of the few things I thought about Kashi and rascals and Chronos and Jimi Hendrix all being in my band. That enough is a story. In the midst of my book, I’m at the Tampa airport, waiting for a flight to gig in Cleveland. So who is at the Tampa Bay airport, Gary Puckett. So he says to me, Joe, are you done with your book? Because everybody knows I’ve been writing a book forever. And I said, Gary, I’m just not a book writer, man. He said, You know what? I have a friend. He’s a great writer. He says, What about if I give his number, and you call them and see if you guys can click, I call them on the phone. We have nothing in common. He said, You know what, let’s try writing his book. And he said, Let’s do a trial. And he’s taping every story that I’m giving him. And after a year and a half of giving him different stories, we did over 600 pages. He only picked out 280. He says, I think we got a book. I read this book, I lift this book. And I just said, this is exactly how I would have written it and had I’ve been a writer. So I was very pleased.


I can help it if I walk like this can help it if I talk like this. I can’t help it. If the sun don’t shine. I’m just about to lose my mind. I lost my breathing. I lost my baby. She left me


the book as Joey mentioned is called peppermint chronicles my true story of six rock’n’roll Jimi Hendrix fighting racism and the mob. It’s the tale of his success and includes stories about many of the artists he’s worked with in befriended the Beatles, Judy Garland, John Wayne, Jackie Kennedy, Nat King Cole, Shirley MacLaine and de Klerk just to name a few. The book’s cover shows Joey jumping for joy high into the air. I asked him about it.


Well actually, if you look behind me, there’s a Leslie speaker from the Oregon I was jumping off that speaker. I always jumped off the Lesley during shout my closing number ever since I went to the premiere lounge and I heard the Isley Brothers and in my opinion they did the best version of shout ever.


I was at this club for a week. So I should have known the parameters. I missing one beam. So I jumped up and I hit my head so hard. I fell flat on my back was unconscious for maybe a minute or two. They had the ambulance come in. I must have hit the Yes, but because they said You okay, yes, you want to sing anymore? Yes. You want to go out? You don’t want to go to the hospital? Yes. No matter what they catch. It was yes.


Tell me was right back into performing after the accident and says despite his more than 60 years of onstage work, he still gets a little nervous.


Maybe five seconds of trepidation. But soon as I go out, and the light hits me and I see my audience, they’re gonna get the best that God has to offer. When I’m on stage, you can tell I’m having a hell of a time. And I promised myself that and I also promised myself when it becomes a chore to me and I’m not enjoying what I’m doing. And I’m not giving my A game. I’m done. I wanted to be rock and roll and that’s what I’ve been all my life. Why change and I don’t know right now


I was hooked up with the mob. The mob owns the nightclub. And they also own my record label roulette records, Vito Genovese, and one of the five families that ruled New York City. He was the boss and I never got paid any royalties from my record company record royalties, recording royalties. Shouldn’t say, Never got I got $13,000 for the millions of records that I sold. And the reason I think I got it is because my name ended in the bowel. And I’m your Italian. Yeah. And you said so. They figured I’ll give him a few bucks. Maurice Levy was the owner. The record company worked worked for the mob, Morris Levy was well known in jazz clubs, music, publishing, and the independent record industry, always a prominent subject of investigations into organized crime. Maurice was a crook who swindled many artists out of royalties by stealing their writing credits. He was convicted in 1990 of extortion but passed away before serving jail time.


He told me this, and he was true to his word, he says, Can I get the record money, you get the performance money, and that’s how it ended up. And I was alright, because I was making a lot of money performing.


Even today, the peppermint twist can be heard on radio stations all over the world. Are you picking up money? Each time it’s heard today?


I’m still fortunate that every three months I get a royalty check. Not as big as it used to be, but it’s still a nice royalty check for money that I’m making while I’m sleeping while the record records being played or, or what could be better. Joey Dee Is there a formula for doing the twist correctly? How were you teaching your audiences to do the twist? What’s involved?


Well, my version was with Henry Glover. I told him, I wanted to do it different than the straight for that Hank Ballard did. Come on. Let’s do this was mine. I said I want it to be more funky. And funky to me, means a little more soulful, low group more groovy. So he came up with that data, that, that, that, that that? I said, Yes. That’s what I want. Something just like that. So we go into the studio. Now. I have Rajesh Freeman singing the peppermint twist. And Henry said that they forgot he sings it. That’s not what I want. He said, Why don’t you sing it, Joey. I said, I’m a background singer. He said, try it because sometimes the writer of a song can capture the essence of it a lot better than I said. I’ll try it. So I went in there. Well, God knew dance. And that’s exactly what I want. He tells me over over the microphone in the studio said, Okay, I’ll try it, we’ll do it. And I got it. I think two takes, it might have been one one and a half. And that became the version and I became the lead singer that got a new dancer, Nikolai.


and in terms of the audience dancing to it, and


here’s how I got into the dance. Because in the lyric that Henry and I wrote, We did 123 Kick, 123 Jump, 123 Kick, 123 Jump. And that’s how I would teach it to the audience. So they would do my version of the twist whenever I played and, and a couple of times, I did some shows with Hank Ballard, and a couple with Shelby, and they would do their version, I would do wine. And I feel I always thought mine is more soulful. And it was different than than the original. Yeah, but we loved it. Everyone still loves it. It’s one of those songs, isn’t it? And your autobiography is just sensational. It’s become one of the top selling music history books on Amazon. So a massive congratulations to you for that too.


I want to just tell you a few of the people that have endorsed this book, and I’m so honoured, Sir Barry Gibb from the Bee Gees Yep. EGS okay. I wrote some beautiful things. Frankie Valli, Aaron Neville from the Neville Brothers. Ronnie Spector, we just lost recently. And I did the eulogy at our funeral, Frankie Avalon, the Shirelles that I went to school with Julian Lennon. It’s amazing. All these people wrote some beautiful things on the back cover about the book and about me, and I’m so honoured and flattered. It’s an incredible story. That is not because it’s my story. But it’s an incredible story about the early 1960s in history of what was going on with the Vietnam War, racism, and how we got around it. Now we did it. And how I did some gigs down south. And the way we retreated when we got down there it was. It’s all in that book besides, and all the stories I can tell you about Jimi Hendrix, who was a chick magnet, as you probably heard, and we had a lot of a lot of fun on stage off stage. And it was such an honour working with people like Jimmy and the Rascals but you have to remember this. I’m in New York City, where there’s low hanging fruit, the best musicians in the world. That’s where you make it


So what message does Joey want to leave us with our audience with?


This generation of rock and roll is still here and it’s unique in to itself came along at the right time right after World War Two. I come from a family of 10 they taught me good music and I had a God given ear so music was a natural I just wish I had Frank Sinatra’s voice!


I just want to say one thing just before we close, and that is in 1962. I had my number one record fan club was in Australia and New Zealand. Very good. I better let you go. All right, Sandy, very nice speaking with you. And God bless you. Take care.


Lots of love. Joey, thank you so much for your time, much appreciated. Joey Dee, who’s been honoured with multiple awards for his music and in 2010 even had a street corner dedicated to him in his hometown of Passaic, New Jersey. Thanks for being here with me today. I’m sure you found the story of Joey D and the starlight is illuminating. Even if you weren’t around when they first set out. Can I count on your company again, same time next week. I hope so. I’ll look forward to being back with you then. Meantime, have fun, won’t you? Whatever you’re up to Bye now.