Peggy March, the Youngest Woman to Top the Hot 100, Looks Back on 'I Will Follow Him'
Her million-selling single moved to No. 1 on this day in 1963.
Exactly 56 years ago today, 15-year-old singer Peggy March claimed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with her second single on RCA, "I Will Follow Him," which stayed in the top spot for three weeks. To be specific, she was 15 years and one month old on April 27, 1963, making her the youngest female singer to reach the top of the chart. She broke the record set by Brenda Lee, who was 15 years and eight months old when she went to No. 1 with "I'm Sorry" on July 18, 1960.
Most chart records are broken at some point, but five decades later, the Lansdale, Penn., born March still holds the title of youngest female singer to claim pole position on the Hot 100. She continues to tour, performing around the U.S., on cruise ships with other rock n' roll stars of the '50s and '60s as well as in Germany, where she lived for 35 years while enjoying a long and successful career recording German-language pop songs.
Billboard sat down with March in the dining room of her home in Florida to talk about the recording of "I Will Follow Him," her surprising thoughts about the follow-up single and how she thinks she will feel on the day a young female singer finally surpasses her long-standing chart achievement.
When "I Will Follow Him" moved to No. 1 on the Hot 100 on April 27, 1963, you were 15 years and one month old, making you the youngest female singer to ever top this chart. It's now 56 years later and no one had broken that chart record. How do you feel about holding this record for so long?
I think it's amazing. I thought Miley Cyrus would've gotten there in the very beginning of her career. She started young enough. Of course, Tiffany just missed it by a year, I think. That was a huge deal at the time.
The singer who came closest to breaking your record was Monica. She was 14 when her first single, "Don't Take It Personal," peaked at No. 2 in 1995.
What about Will Smith's daughter?
Willow was 10 when she made her Hot 100 debut with "Whip My Hair," which peaked at No. 11 in 2010.
She was very young. It's not something that I watch out for. It's not something I necessarily wish for. It surprises the hell out of me that the record is still there. I thought it would've been broken long before now. At the time, I don't think I gave it a second thought. It wasn't until years later when it became a thing that I thought, "Oh wow, isn't that interesting?" Because we were all teenagers at that time. Some were just older than others.
How do you think you will feel if and when the record is broken?
I would like to meet the young woman who does it. I would love to at least get a photo together because it is a milestone. It's something no one else has done up until now. So whenever that is, I'm sure I'll be okay with it.
Let's go back to childhood. What is your earliest memory of music?
My mother told me when I was two, I sang all the commercials from television. I don't remember doing that. However, when I was five, I was invited to sing for a ladies auxiliary group. I used to put shows on. And when I was eight, I did four shows a day for Tony Grant's Stars of Tomorrow in Atlantic City at the Steel Pier. If you ever saw the movie Beaches, the little redhead was pretty much me, aside from the fact that I was relatively shy and she wasn't. I tapped and I sang, and the next show was two hours later and in between, we were on the beach. It was fun and I absolutely loved it.
So you knew very early what you wanted. You were 13 when you signed with RCA and released your first single, "Little Me," from the Broadway musical of the same name. What did you think of that song?
It's not an easy song. It's got a weird melody. It changes keys in the middle. Even I knew at that age it was not really commercial, but because they had already given me the moniker "Little," they thought it was cute. And RCA was the label for Broadway musicals at that time. So it was the thing to do, give it to somebody to record and I just happened to be the somebody.
It wasn't a hit.
No. The funny thing is, it didn't bother me because I knew that if I found it difficult to sing, then everybody else was going to find it difficult to sing along with. It was a Broadway song, not a pop song. But some Broadway songs made it to No. 1 at that time. This one was not going to happen. The show only lasted seven months on Broadway. Even when they revived it, it only lasted four weeks. I wondered, "Why are they doing this?" The kazoos in the song were a good touch, though.
Growing up, did you listen to all of the popular female singers of the '50s?
I listened to female singers but I did not want to copy any of them. I didn't want to be like them. When somebody compared me to Connie Francis, I was insulted. I remember that vividly. But did I listen to them? Yes, I did, because it was the music of the day. Mom and dad were not against rock n' roll. Dad was very into girl singers. He loved big band music, and so he loved all the females from the big band era and listened to them all the time.
What do you remember about the first time you were introduced to "I Will Follow Him"?
I was beginning my freshman year of high school. I was taken out of school that day. We drove up to Newark, which was a two-hour drive from my hometown, to meet with Hugo [Peretti] and Luigi [Creatore], who were pretty big producers at the time. They produced the Tokens and they had big hits, several of which they wrote and several of which they didn't. "I Will Follow Him" is one they did not write. I remember walking into their office and seeing it on their desk. The sheet music was right there. My sister tells me to this day, "You didn't like that song at all. You thought it was too repetitive." Of course, that's what makes it an earworm and that's a good thing. It's not an easy song to sing vocally, because it springs octaves. It just goes up. But that was okay; I didn't care about that. It was very different. We recorded it shortly after, in early January 1963. It was the only song we recorded that day. It was a three-hour session. They had me in an isolation booth, because my voice was too loud. The strings were picking my voice up, so they had to isolate me. So there I was, drinking my Coca-Cola and singing my heart out. We did it 13 times and I only know this because somebody did a digital remix of it later and it said "Take 13" so that was the single. In those days, there was no going back and redoing one word. You did the whole thing over and over and over again.
And the orchestra was playing live?
Yes. That's why I was in a booth because the whole orchestra was all around me. The strings were over there, the tympani over there and the rhythm section over here and I was in this isolation booth. It was very cool.
How soon after you recorded it was the single released?
Not more than a month. It came out on Jan. 22, 1963.
When did you notice the song was getting some attention?
At the time, RCA had the biggest and the best promotion department. The single started to break in Detroit so I flew there with an entourage. It was my first time on a plane and the label had me doing interviews. I must have done some record hops. I was probably busy studying for a high school Latin test. But Detroit was a big deal. It wasn't Philadelphia. It wasn't around the corner. You had to get on a plane to get there.
Do you remember listening to your own song on the radio?
Friday was the day I had to clean the kitchen floor. I was in my school uniform doing the dishes and I was listening to WABC radio. Once my single made their top 10, I followed it every week. It continued to go up and it was No. 2 for three weeks and this particular week, when they played the No. 2 song, it was not "I Will Follow Him." I remember thinking, "Well, I guess it flew off. It's no longer there. That's disappointing." And then they played the No. 1 song and it was "I Will Follow Him." I stood there totally mesmerized, listening to me sing. It was very quiet in the house. Nobody was in the kitchen but me, and then the phone never stopped ringing because my family and everyone else were all calling. It was a big deal.
At that age, were you aware of the Billboard chart?
Oh, sure. Cash Box and Record World, too. I was made aware of all three of them by management. And every time we went to RCA, Billboard was everywhere. It was always on somebody's table. I knew that this was the music industry bible. It was important that you get in there and we watched it climb to No. 1.
How did the other kids in high school react to your sudden success?
As the song started to climb the charts, it was really strange, and I didn't understand why some kids were no longer talking to me. I wasn't asked to school dances and I would walk home alone and I would feel very sorry for myself.
Do you think the other kids were jealous?
Maybe some of them were. I still wanted to go my friends' birthday parties. I still wanted to go out with guys, because I'm a girl. I didn't want to be separated. As far as I was concerned, my career was another life that happened on the weekends and this was school. These were kids that I had grown up with since first grade. I heard later that the guys were intimidated because they thought I would say no and if I said no, they would be teased. All I know is that I didn't go on any dates.
Do you remember singing "I Will Follow Him" on television for the first time?
American Bandstand was the first time and I was scared because coming from the Philadelphia area, I watched it every day. I would pick my sister up from school and we'd go home and watch the rest of General Hospital and then American Bandstand. It was a ritual and the next day we'd talk about seeing Freddy Cannon or Fabian or Frankie Avalon. Brenda Lee was on quite a few times so the show had big stars. The kids dancing on the show were also stars. And now suddenly I'm standing in front of them. I'm younger than all of them, at least a year or two younger, which is a huge amount of time when you're a teenager. And I thought, "I have to stand in front of them and I have to perform. Oh my God, I can't." They were famous. I was confronted with being the star and it was quite frightening. I was honored also. Dick Clark was a wonderful guy and he treated me beautifully.
What was it like meeting Dick Clark for the first time?
My knees were shaking. The same thing for Perry Como. I idolized him and Dick too. These were megastars and what are they going to think about me and what's my hair look like? Am I sitting right? Dick was really extremely nice to me. I remember being behind this gold curtain waiting to go on and it opened up and there they all are in the studio, and it was small, but it looks like it's two blocks long. It was very exciting.
Years later, you did a live show with Dick Clark in Tampa.
It was my 50th birthday. He was such a good-looking guy and he never aged. It was totally unfair. He was very sweet again but we were more on an even keel. I was no longer the baby in the room and I was no longer intimidated by him. As far as I was concerned, he and his wife were human beings and they just happened to be there. I was impressed by his legend and his longevity, of course.
Let's talk about the follow-up to "I Will Follow Him," a song titled "I Wish I Were a Princess."
I thought it was babyish and that bothered me, especially because there were songs like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and I'm singing "I Wish I Were a Princess." I hated that. I really begged not to do it. Hugo and Luigi and George Weiss were the writers, so I couldn't have an opinion. I still don't like the song. It might be a favorite of other people but it was never my favorite.
Did you know before you saw the original John Waters' film Hairspray that your recording of "I Wish I Were a Princess" was part of the soundtrack?
No, I didn't. And not only that, they used so much of it. Usually it's two or three bars. It's on, it's off. Oh no. This one went on and on. So that of course made me very happy. It fit beautifully in there. More fun was when my version of "I Will Follow Him" was in a movie with Sandra Bullock. All About Steve was the name of that movie and it was not a hit.
And the of course, the song is a major element in the movie Sister Act. How were you first aware of that?
Lou Christie called me one day and said, "Peg, you have to go see Sister Act," and I asked, "Why?" He said, "Just go. You'll see why." So my mother was visiting and I took her with me. She was very funny, God rest her soul. She stood outside the theater and kept saying to everybody, "Do you know who this is?" "Mom, please don't do that." She used to do that all the time, embarrass me, but it was a lot of fun. I understand they looked for me for some time to be part of the film. I could've been a nun but they couldn't find me. And then there was a whole resurgence of "I Will Follow Him," which was a wonderful thing.
Can you do a live show without singing "I Will Follow Him"?
I didn't always do "I Will Follow Him" in Germany. I do now. I do a little bit longer version. The song was only two minutes and 30 seconds long. So now I do a repeat and a repeat and a repeat to make it a little longer. But no, never again can I ever do a show without singing it.
Did you ever tire of singing it?
I did when I was 18. But then I became so thankful because even though I didn't have the follow-up hits like a lot of other people did, the song was so powerful and so big and so international that it got me to a lot of other places. And through those other places, I was able to record other things that did as big in those other countries as "I Will Follow Him."
Have you ever changed the song up?
I have spoken to other artists about changing up their songs and I once saw a colleague of mine do that. She did that with a very big song of hers and turned it into a disco version and people walked out. They don't want that. So I never really did. I recorded it in German and it was not a very good lyric. It didn't mean anything to anybody in German like it does in English. In Japan, they had me keep a lot of the original lyric and translated parts of it into Japanese.
What kind of reaction do you get today when you sing "I Will Follow Him"?
People tell me, "I fell in love with that song." Or, "I had my first date with that song." And, "We danced to it at the prom."
One of the writers of the original French version of "I Will Follow Him" was Paul Mauriat, though he didn't use his real name. Five years after you took the song to No. 1, he was No. 1 on the Hot 100 with "Love Is Blue." Did you ever meet him?
Years later, I was at a song festival in Caracas, Venezuela. A man came up to me and said, "I want to thank you for my house." And I said, "Well, what is your name?" And he told me who he was and I asked, "Why are you thanking me?" and he said, "Because I wrote 'I Will Follow Him.'" "But your name is not on the label?" He said, "I didn't want people to know that I was writing commercial material at that time. I was a serious musician." I gave him a big hug and I said, "It's such a pleasure. I had no idea."
You had great international success, especially in Germany, where you had 26 consecutive chart hits, all sung in German. How did that come about?
RCA was very much an international company. They had studios everywhere and they often sent their artists to record in different languages. At that time, everybody recorded in German and they welcomed American artists with open arms. Because the American Forces Network radio was very strong there, they knew who these people were. They knew them in English and then of course they knew them in German. Even today, they still play Connie Francis' German songs. I was able to pick up the language relatively quickly and my accent was good and I kept going back and forth and recorded more music. Then songs were written for me. RCA had excellent writers. Henry Meier, who wrote "Summer Wind," was my composer and in the beginning, all my hits were his. And I had the best lyricists. The biggest and most famous of my songs was "Mit 17 Hat Man Noch Träume," which is one that everybody in Germany knows. It means, "At 17, you can still dream." I was 17 at the time and the song was written for me.
Finally, when RCA signed you, label execs added "Little" to your name and called you "Little Peggy March." How did you feel about that?
I absolutely hated it. I was 13 years old when I signed with RCA and I was really small at 4' 10". My family name was Battavio and they said, "No, that's too long. What can we call you? Should we call you Peggy Vio?" Nobody liked that. So Luigi said, "When's your birthday?" I said, "March." "Perfect. We'll call you Little Peggy March." I must have cringed because I didn't want to be "little" anything. Unfortunately, it stuck. To this day, it's still there and when people talk about "I Will Follow Him," they never say Peggy March. They say "Little Peggy March." One year after I was No. 1 on Billboard, I was on The Clay Cole Show in New York. They made a big sheet cake for me and it had "Happy Birthday Little Peggy March" on it. I crossed out the "Little." I guess nobody was watching the show that day because it stuck. There was just no way of getting rid of it until I turned 19 and I did an album called No Foolin' for RCA and by then they didn't call me "Little" anymore, and I was thankful for that. And at 19, I had grown to my full height of 5' 4".