The racially-integrated band Joey Dee and the Starliters experienced a few lineup changes but the most notable lineup consisted of Joey Dee, David Brigati, Larry Vernieri, Carlton Lattimore, Sam Taylor and Willie Davis. In 1960, they were booked at what supposed to be a one-night-only weekend gig at the Peppermint Lounge, a club and discotheque in New York City. Their performance was a hit and the Lounge was soon attended by famous celebrities, like Merle Oberon, John Wayne, Nat King Cole and Jackie Kennedy. Because of the success they brought to the club, the manager made them regular performers there. Dee wrote “Peppermint Twist” as a paean to the lounge that gave them their first exposure, as well as their response to the “Twist” dance craze.
“Peppermint Twist” topped the Hot 100 in late 1961 and gave them their first gold record. The Starliters also starred in their first movie Hey, Let’s Twist, producing a soundtrack album that contained the singles “Shout – Part I” and the title track. “Shout – Part I” became the band’s second and last Top 10 hit in early 1962. After the Starliters’ peak years had ended, Dee still continued to record and issue solo singles from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. Apart from his solo career, he still makes appearances with his the newer Starliters that include Joey Dee’s own son.
Brief Biography of Joey Dee
Joseph Di Nicola, famously known as Joey Dee, was born on June 11, 1940, in Passaic, New Jersey. He was the youngest of ten children. Dee taught himself to play the harmonica when he began singing in his local church choir at the age of eight. He mastered the clarinet in high school, an instrument borrowed from his sister. A few months later, little Joey thought he was mature enough to take another step. He organized his band and played successfully at private parties and school dances. When the alto saxophonist left the group, young Mr. Dee took his chair and has played the alto ever since.
Initially, Joey Dee’s big goal was to become a history teacher. All the money he made as a band leader went into his studies. But bookings were getting better and better, and Di Nicola’s extended family could need the money Joey was making, so he considered a career as a musician instead. The choice was wise since, in 1960, Joey Dee and The Starliters (because that was the name he gave his group) became famous. The crowd took the band positively as the audience was getting increasingly excited with a handsome kid singing with a band. Joey Dee and his group, the Starliters, sparked the Twist craze in 1961 with the hit “Peppermint Twist.” Joey became billed as “The Godfather of The Twist.”
The audience quickly learned – took the floor and imitated Joey Dee and his men. A twist spread like a wildfire across New York, the United States, and the world. Dee appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Dirk Clark Show, and he even starred in the Paramount picture “Hey, Let’s Twist.” Also, Dee became a guest performer in New York’s Hotel Plaza and immediately became a phenomenal performer.
With his remarkable performances, Joey Dee won a Gold Record. He led the Starliters with an energetic vibe immortalizing the joint in his 1961 chart-topper “Peppermint Twist. Further, Dee helped other artists by welcoming future stars to the Starliters’ rotation lineup, including The Ronettes, three-quarters of the Young Rascals, and Jimi Hendrix. After that, Dee continued to release material into his mid-’70s and remained active in the oldies scene.
Formation and early career
Joey Dee and the Starliters were formed in New Jersey in the 1950s. Founder and leader Joey Dee was born Joseph DiNicola in Passaic, New Jersey in 1940. He formed his first band called The Thunder Trio during his high school days. The group evolved into the Starliters, with new lead singer Roger Freeman joining the group in 1958, where they also trooped for their first recording session.
From that session, the Starliters released their first single “Lorraine” (b/w “The Girl I Walk to School”) on minor label Little. Around the same time, Joey met David Brigati who was then lead singer of the Hi-Fives and recruited him into his own group. They would share lead vocal duties, with Joey as the primary lead vocalist. David sang one of the group’s earliest singles “Face of an Angel” (b/w “Shimmy Baby”), which was released on Scepter Records.
Freeman had left the band, and by the late 1950s or early 1960s Joey Dee and the Starliters’ lineup consisted of Dee, Brigati, another singer Larry Vernieri, keyboardist Carlton Lattimore, guitarist Sam Taylor and drummer Willie Davis. It is worth noting that would-be actor and Hollywood star Joe Pesci once played guitar in the band, as well as Jimi Hendrix, then known as Jimmy James. Pesci and Hendrix, as well as other musicians, made up the Starliters’ touring group.
Finding fame at the Peppermint Lounge
Freeman had left the band, and by the late 1950s or early 1960s Joey Dee and the Starliters’ lineup consisted of Dee, Brigati, another singer Larry Vernieri, keyboardist Carlton Lattimore, guitarist Sam Taylor and drummer Willie Davis. Pesci and Hendrix, as well as other musicians, made up the Starliters’ touring group.
Joey Dee had recognized the potential of a newest dance craze “The Twist,” and soon included it as one of their onstage dance routines. The Starliters were performing at a nightclub in Lodi, New Jersey called Oliveri’s, where they were spotted by New York City talent agent Don Davis. Then he had them booked at a then-little-known club called the Peppermint Lounge for what was supposed to be a one-night-only weekend gig.
When the Starliters made their appearance at the Peppermint Lounge in 1960, the club found actress Merle Oberon and Prince Serge Oblinski dancing the night away. When this made news the next morning, all of a sudden the turnout outside the club the following night became huge. It even took a barricade and police officers to control the crowd who wanted to get inside the Peppermint Lounge.
Soon, the once-obscure Peppermint Lounge rose to fame, and became the favorite hangout of other celebrities such as Jackie Kennedy, John Wayne, Nat “King” Cole, Judy Garland, Shirley MacLaine, and many others. The Starliters became such a sensation there that they became the house band of Peppermint Lounge.
As a tribute to the venue that made them famous, and as well as a response to the growing popularity of the Twist dance craze, Joey Dee and producer Henry Glover wrote “Peppermint Twist.” The single was released on Roulette Records in late 1961, and eventually made it all the way to #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in early 1962. “Peppermint Twist” sold over one million copies and went gold.
Other hits, movies and more touring
The Starliters went on to enjoy a few more hits up to 1963 including “Hey, Let’s Twist” (#20 pop), their cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout – Part I” (#6 pop), “What Kind of Love Is This” (#18 pop), and their last Top 40 single “Hot Pastrami with Mashed Potatoes” (#36 pop).
Riding on their fame at the moment, the Starliters also starred in their own movies Hey, Let’s Twist and Two Tickets to Paris. The band also toured in Europe. In Stockholm, Sweden, the Starliters performed alongside the Beatles who were then the biggest band in the northern continent at that time.
After the Starliters’ peak years had ended, Dee still continued to record and issue solo singles from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. Apart from his solo career, he still occasionally made appearances with his fellow Starliters. In 2001 Joey Dee and the Starliters were one of the subjects of Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop, a special aired on PBS. Dee has continued to tour regularly in the US as well as in Canada.
Joey Dee’s son Ronnie DiNicola is also in the newer lineup, playing saxophone and singing backup vocals.