A little over 53 years ago, Little Peggy March topped the Billboard Hot 100 with a song that originated in France. “I Will Follow Him” was No. 1 for three weeks, but the composition by Franck Pourcel and Paul Mauriat (with English lyrics added by Norman Gimbel) has lived on, thanks to the movie Sister Act and now, a commercial for the Apple iPhone 7 that features Nigerian-born singer Toulouse performing “I Will Follow You” as a slowed-down, plaintive ballad.
A few weeks ago, March received a phone call from her daughter-in-law, who asked, “Do you know they’re using your song?”
“She sent me a link to the commercial,” March tells Billboard. “It’s so well done and Toulouse did a great job. It’s very modern and very pretty. He didn’t bastardize it in any way, and why not have a different rendition?”
The Toulouse single opened at No. 2 on Billboard and Clio’s monthly Top TV Commercials chart, on the strength of 95,000 Shazam tags, 26,000 downloads sold and 1.3 million U.S. streams tallied during the month of October. The single also appeared on two other Billboard charts, climbing to No. 6 on the R&B Digital Song Sales chart and No. 17 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Digital Song Sales chart.
March was 14 years old when she recorded “I Will Follow Him” in December 1962 at RCA’s 24th Street studios in New York City. She did 13 takes in a three-hour session.
Pourcel had released his own instrumental version before Petula Clark recorded vocals on the song originally known as “Chariot.” Producers Hugo Peretti & Luigi Creatore then had March record an English-language version. A few months earlier, the teen singer from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, made her recording debut on RCA with “Little Me,” the title song from a 1962 Broadway musical by Neil Simon that starred Sid Caesar. The single failed to chart, and Hugo & Luigi followed it up with “I Will Follow Him.”
March thought the song was too repetitive and had no idea it would be a hit. Released on Jan. 22, 1963, the song began its journey up the Hot 100. March remembers that it was stuck at No. 2 on New York radio station WABC, unable to surpass The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” Then, while washing the family’s supper dishes one night, she was listening to the countdown and when the DJ got to No. 2, it wasn’t “I Will Follow Him.” March figured her song had fallen down the survey, but then the DJ announced there was a brand-new No. 1 song and played her single. “I was all alone in the kitchen standing over a sink of soapy water and my song was No. 1.”
When March reached pole position on the Hot 100, she was 15 years and one month old. That made her the youngest female singer to ever hit No. 1 on this chart, a record she holds to this day.
In 1982, Dutch singer José Hoebee, a onetime member of the girl group Luv, updated “I Will Follow Him” and took it to No. 1 in The Netherlands. Then, 29 years later, U.K. producer Darren Harvey introduced the two women and had them record I Will Follow Him” as a duet.
In 1992, “I Will Follow Him” was back, performed by Whoopi Goldberg and a group of nuns in the film Sister Act. “One day I got a call from Lou Christie [‘Lightnin’ Strikes’] and he told me I had to go see the film Sister Act. I asked him why and he said, ‘Just go!’ I loved what they did with the song. Any time there is a resurgence, it’s a good thing.”
Of course, how people relate to “I Will Follow Him” depends on how old they are. Peggy was living in Germany with her husband Arnie Harris in the ’90s when she was invited to perform at a gala for Sheraton Hotels in Frankfurt. “There were all kinds of acts there, young singers, older singers. After I rehearsed ‘I Will Follow Him’ and was sitting in the green room, an American girl in her 20s who was living in Germany asked me, ‘What other songs from Sister Act do you do?’”
March still performs all over the world. She’ll be in Largo, Florida, in December and then will do four shows in Michigan. In April, she will be touring all over Germany for two weeks with a full orchestra. She won’t be surprised if someone comes up to her and asks, “What other songs from iPhone commercials do you do?”