The extraordinary connection between Jimi Hendrix, Joe Pesci, Rascals, and Ronettes

The Peppermint Lounge in New York City was the hot spot for the twist dance craze in the early 1960s. House band Joey Dee and the Starliters was the home to legends.
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In the early 1960s, Joseph DiNicola, known by his stage name Joey Dee, was on top of the world. The leader of the acclaimed Peppermint Lounge house band, Joey Dee and the Starliters, Dee was entertaining and greeting the likes of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Judy Garland, John Wayne, Shelley Winters, Nat King Cole, Liberace, Sal Mineo, and Salvador Dalí.

Dee and his group mates were at the right place at the right time, as they became leaders in the international twist dance craze. They had a national number-one hit, "Peppermint Twist", in 1962. Riding off the success of the Peppermint Lounge and the twist craze, Dee would star in two major motion pictures, "Hey, Let's Twist!" in 1961 and "Two Tickets to Paris" in 1962.

Dee's contributions to music history far exceed his role in the twist craze, however. Through the Starliters, he helped launch the careers of legends. Names such as Jimi Hendrix, Joe Pesci, the Rascals, and the Ronettes.

Jimi Hendrix as a Starliter

When Joey Dee first heard Jimi Hendrix play, then known as Maurice James, he knew that Hendrix was extremely gifted.

"And then he played. As if they were connected to one another in some magical, mystical way, Maurice's hands began to make love to those strings in a way I'd never seen or even imagined...I've never seen one man and a guitar love each other so much. Thirty seconds. That's all it took. 'You got the gig' was all I could manage to say," Joey Dee wrote in his autobiography, which was written with the help of J Kevin Morris, Peppermint Twist Chronicles: Joey Dee.

Dee would hire Hendrix on the spot in early 1965. For Hendrix, the gig with the Starliters was a stepping stone in his career. Before joining Dee's group, he was fired by legendary rock n' roller, Little Richard, and needed a job. "One thing was for certain: Jimi needed me, and I needed him," Dee wrote. While Little Richard found Hendrix's stage behavior a nuisance, Dee recognized it could enhance his band's live performances.

Hendrix stayed with the Starliters for a year and then left the group to pursue his own music. Within the span of a couple of short years, he would become a household name and one of the most famous individuals in rock n' roll history. "It makes me happy to know that the band and I helped launch our friend towards legendary success. Jimi never forgot his time with us and spoke often of it in later years." Dee shared in his memoirs.

Joe Pesci: A kid close to home

Joey Dee first met acclaimed actor, Joe Pesci, back in 1958 when Pesci was only a teenager. The legendary actor was a member of another music group and was performing a show in Nutley, New Jersey.

Dee, a proud Italian-American from Passaic, New Jersey, bonded with the young Pesci, and a friendship emerged. Before Pesci would become a Starliter himself, he would often visit Dee at the Peppermint Lounge. He would eventually join in performances and play guitar with the band becoming a "regular" as Dee calls it. Pesci even made his film debut as an extra in Dee's film, "Hey, Let's Twist!"

"This was Joe's big-screen debut, and he made the most of it. During my singing of "Peppermint Twist" in the movie, you can see Pesci in a cutaway, Twistin' right square in the frame, with an energy and vitality that hinted at future superstardom. He knew exactly what he was doing and what he wanted, even then," Dee wrote.

Pesci would go on to become a highly bankable film star, appearing in movies such as "Goodfellas", "Raging Bull", "Home Alone", and "Casino." According to Dee, they have remained friends and try to visit with each other every year.

How Joey Dee and the Starliters played a role in the formation of the Rascals

When Joey Dee first started the Starliters in the 1950s, he enlisted the talents of David Brigati, the older brother of Eddie Brigati, co-founder of the Rascals. Not surprisingly, a young Eddie Brigati was enamored with his brother's music career. In 1962, Dee was searching for new talent and David suggested that his kid brother audition.

"Whenever I picked David up for rehearsal or a gig, I'd hear Eddie singing around the house. To my ear, the young man seemed to be a natural-born singer. Pure as raindrops on a tin roof, his voice was — but he was young," Dee shared. David vouched for his brother and Dee decided to take a chance on him.

Eddie Brigati was not the only new blood to join the Starliters. Dee would eventually hire Felix Cavaliere and Gene Cornish. All remarkable talents in their own right. Brigati, Cavaliere, and Cornish would later leave the Starliters and form their own band, the Rascals (formerly known as the Young Rascals).

Internationally recognized for hits such as "Groovin'", "How Can I Be Sure?", "Good Lovin'", and "A Beautiful Morning", among others, the Rascals became one of the most popular pop-rock groups of the latter 1960s. Rightfully, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

A beloved girl group sung backup for Joey Dee and the Starliters

The Ronettes, composed of Veronica Bennett (Ronnie Spector), Estelle Bennett, and Nedra Talley, became one of the most beloved girl groups of the 1960s with hit singles such as "Be My Baby", "Walking in the Rain", "Do I Love You?", and "Baby, I Love You." Infamous music producer Phil Spector made them a household name.

Before they recorded "Be My Baby", a song Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys considers one of the greatest records of all time, Veronica, Estelle, and Nedra were young women looking for a break in the music business. Joey Dee and the Starliters gave it to them. After Dee first invited the girls onto the Peppermint Lounge stage in November 1961, he knew that they were remarkably talented.

"These gals blew the room away. The audience just about came apart. There was no way of getting around it — these girls could flat-out sing. Strong voices, seamless harmonies, and just as comfortable on stage as anyone I'd ever seen. And they were kids!" Dee wrote in his autobiography.

"Night after night, the girls danced and sang along with Joey Dee and the Starliters to the always-sold-out crowds and standing ovations at the Pep. These girls were terrific. They were humble, they were hungry, and they were talented. So talented. We became good friends, and it was clear to me that they were on the same mission I was on. I asked them if they'd like to gig with us. Of course, they would, they said," Dee elaborated.

Spector first heard the young women sing as Starliters. He contacted them soon after they left Dee's group and they recorded "Be My Baby" in 1963.

Joey Dee on helping launch careers

Joey Dee would be the first one to admit how blessed his career has been. Not only did he enjoy massive success in the early 1960s in his own right, but his group became the home to legends. The Starliters once included Jimi Hendrix, Joe Pesci, the Rascals, and the Ronettes. No other group in the world can say that.

Reflecting on the role Joey Dee and the Starliters played in launching careers, Dee explained in his memoir that "every success these friends and colleagues enjoyed after their time with us I consider a personal success. At times I've felt a pride in their doing that's akin to that of a brother or father who watches his sibling or child succeed."

Dee does indeed have a lot to be proud of. The Shirelles, one of the most famous girl groups of the 1950s and 1960s, gave him his break and he was able to pay it forward in such an incredible way. Now in his late eighties, Dee is still active and performs concerts throughout the year.

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