At fifteen, Peggy March became the youngest female artist to top the American music charts — a record that she still holds to this day — with her recording of “I Will Follow Him.” The vocalist and songwriter was cheated out of many royalties; but recharged and found new fame as a leading schlager singer in Germany and an in-demand recording artist in Japan — performing in the native tongue. She talks with Justin Kantor about her career achievements and Always and Forever, her first English pop album in thirty years.
This is your first English pop album in quite awhile. How did Always and Forever come together?
When Darren Harvey-Beswick of Night Dance Records approached me, he told me that Soren Jensen was primarily a dance-song producer. I’d never done anything like that — except for a disco album in ’79 that really wasn’t up to par with what was happening. I thought it’d be interesting to do something like this; but I told Darren, the most important thing is the song — no matter what you do.
So, Soren sent me “Every Day’s a New Day.” The lyric wasn’t acceptable. It felt like it was written by someone who didn’t speak English well. I told him, “I like the song; but do you mind if I change a little bit here and there with this line?” I took a lot of what he had and just edited it. It was fun to do. Then he sent me the second song on the album, “I Can’t Say No to You,” and it all started to flow. He started sending me one song after another, and I sent him back lyrics. It became a relationship. This went over a few weeks. It’s what became the album. It’s not like we went in there and said, “This is the kind of album we’re going to make.” It was all done by e-mail.
How did the song “I Still Follow You” come to fruition?
When Darren first told me he wanted a follow-up — pardon the pun — to “I Will Follow Him,” I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea. It sounded corny. Not that I wanted to get away from the song, but I didn’t want to be identified only with that. I thought about it for the longest time, and nothing came to me. One day I was going to take a nap in my living room. My computer was on the dining room table. I started to get the idea for a lyric as I was dozing off. “Oh, please, leave me alone. I just want to go to sleep now!” One line after another kept coming up until I finally said, “Okay, I’ll get up!” So, I went to the computer and literally wrote the lyric in twenty minutes. I sent it to Soren, and he had a melody the next morning!
The end product has a dreamlike quality, more subdued and sedate than the original tune.
Well, it’s certainly a little darker. She’s not a stalker; but she has no choice in the situation, and she just continues to follow this guy. It’s kinda sad, but lends itself to that melody.
When songs don’t come to you in that dreamlike state, what is your approach as a writer? Do you think about life events and say something about them, or do you get inspiration from your surroundings?
All of the above. “Still a Sunny Day” I had a hard time with. At first, I didn’t want to write a lyric to that melody. Throughout the process of writing songs for this album, I’d always tell Soren, “Let me live with it for awhile.” With this one, I played it a little bit everyday. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was a very upbeat kind of affair. It needed an esoteric lyric. I had to switch wavelengths and start with something else. It took me awhile; but once I got started, it came about relatively quickly. I wanted one song on the album that had nothing to do with love or obsession between two people; and I wanted to say something without preaching.
You described your collaborative process with Soren. Does it always work that way? For example, with a classic 80’s pop tune that you co-wrote, “When the Rain Begins to Fall,” first recorded by Jermaine Jackson and Pia Zadora, and now getting your own reading on Always and Forever?
That was a bit different. I was part of a band called BMW (Bradley-March-Witmack). We performed a lot in California. We’d write together; and every once in awhile I’d take a song home with me and finish the lyric. Other times, I’d come up with the melody, and we’d all do the lyrics.
How did your remake of the song with Andreas Zaron come about?
I lived in Germany for a number of years and had tremendous success as a recording artist there. Whenever I was in the Stuttgart area, this young man aged twelve would come to my door, ask for my autograph, and to speak to me. I would always ask, “Does your mother know where you are?” As he got older, he became my fan club president. He would come to visit me and my husband in Munich, and got to be a real friend. Later, he said to my husband, “I want to be in showbiz. What do I have to do?”
Of course, everybody wants to be in showbiz, so we laughed about it. But my husband gave him a bunch of things that he ought to do—like learn to act, sing, dance, write songs, and have perfect English. He went and did all of that, and now he’s a huge musical star in Germany. He told me that he’d always wanted to do a duet with me and suggested “Rain.” This was around the same time I started talking about doing this album; so when I was in Germany last year for a TV special, we recorded it. We did a ballad version and an uptempo one.
Let’s talk about the beginnings of your career. “I Will Follow Him” was certainly a very defining moment for you. The Purcell/Mauriat/Gimbel composition has an interesting history. How did it come into your hands?
I was with RCA Records, and was very lucky to get Hugo & Luigi as producers. They were extremely successful. They got a lot of press and attention for whomever they were working with. My first single, “Little Me,” had gone on the market from an unsuccessful musical of the same name. Even though I liked the song, it wasn’t commercial. It’s not easy to sing, it changes keys, and does weird things musically— and the ’60s were all about everybody knowing the words and singing along. I was fourteen at the time, however, and wasn’t allowed to have an opinion.
So then, they looked for another song to complement my voice, I vividly remember walking into Hugo & Luigi’s office and seeing “I Will Follow Him” on their desk. It was really as simple as, “This is your next recording.” We went in and recorded it right away in December, and it was out a month later. There was a huge orchestra, at a studio on 23rd Street in New York, with timpani and strings. Everyone at that time recorded together; we didn’t do separate tracks — except the male and female voices came in the next day. But everything else, including me in an isolation booth in the middle of the orchestra, recorded at the same time.
The song was range-y. I had worked with bands before, but certainly not that big. My reaction was, “Wow, these people are all here for me. This is kinda cool!” But I was there to work. I had my Coca Cola next to me. Every time they called for another take, I said, “Okay.” At that time, I was a freshman in high school. My Latin tests were a lot harder than doing this song fifteen or twenty times. The next day, if it wasn’t a weekend, I most likely had some English test. I had a dual life going on — I absolutely loved it. I was on TV alot in the Philadelphia area. That part wasn’t new to me, but getting on The Perry Como Show was an extremely big deal.
”I Will Follow Him” was first recorded as an instrumental piece by composer Paul Mauriat, then in French by Petula Clark. Your recording, however, made you the youngest female act to have a number-one single on the U.S. charts—a record you still hold to this day. What was your reaction?
We were all teens at that time — Lesley Gore, girl groups, some in groups were younger than me. I was the only soloist that age; but we didn’t really give that a lot of thought. It was only later that it became a big deal. There were a ton of cover records of the song. At that time, in Billboard and Cashbox, underneath the number-one record were listed all of the cover versions. Everybody from Andy Williams to Ricky Nelson to Lesley Gore and Peter, Paul & Mary remade it; but only mine went to number one.
It was another feather in my cap. The funny thing is, while I was living in Germany in in the ‘70s and listening to the American Forces Network one day, I heard Casey Kasem’s quiz at the end of his show. On this occasion, he asked, “Who was the first white female ever to be number-one on the R&B charts?” So I waited. When he announced the answer, it was me — I was floored!
”I Will Follow Him” is viewed by many as a defining record of the girl-group sound. When you were starting out, did you feel a lot of competition with other acts such as The Chiffons and The Shirelles?
Yes. It wasn’t in a mean and rotten kind of way; but of course, girl groups were the hot sellers at that time really, and you were constantly competing on the charts with another. As a matter of fact, The Chiffons went to number one right before I did, with “He’s So Fine”; so I literally followed them up the charts!
Speaking of follow-ups, your next record was called “I Wish I Were a Princess.”
That was not my favorite. “Hello Heartache, Goodbye Love” was a much better song. I don’t think any teenager at that time wanted to be considered a child having dreams of being a princess. They wanted love and togetherness.
In spite of all of your commercial success, you were taken of advantage financially by your manager.
I was a simple ‘60s statistic. Even though in Pennsylvania we had the Coogan Law to supposedly protect minors, it didn’t do that at all. It just gave someone else the power to manipulate and put their hands in the pot as often as they wanted, and my family could not. The law stated that if you were a minor-aged recording artist or other sort of professional, your parents could not manage your career. It was originally created for actors and named after child actor Jackie Coogan. His parents spent all his money and left him broke. The law was only effective in Pennsylvania and California.
My manager was also appointed by the court to be my guardian, so he had legal access to everything. He signed my contracts. Even though I also signed them, my signature was not considered legitimate. That is no longer allowed today. When Tiffany had that problem when she was sixteen, it was brought up again that the guardian cannot be the manager, and vice versa.
During the time period that followed those first few singles you cut for RCA, the hits didn’t keep coming in the U.S. Did the management scenario impact that? Were you upset by the lack of commercial success here?
A lot of things were going on at that time. Aside from my still being in school, RCA was breaking down. Right after 1963, the promotion department started to have big problems. ‘64 was when the Beatles came. The whole British Invasion started, so a lot of American artists were having a very hard time. There were the folk-rock Vietnam stations — music was changing tremendously. I, on the other hand, was going to Japan and Germany twice a year—as well as to South America and Italy, recording in other languages. I had all that going for me at the same time. So, the fact that something wasn’t going for me here wasn’t the greatest, obviously; but I didn’t have too much time to think about that. I was having a grand time traveling to all these places.
Let’s talk about your German singing career. You became quite famous in Deutschland as a schlager artist. How did that opportunity come about?
RCA was an international label with offices in every country in the world. They thought it was a great idea to send me to these countries, put German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish to all these songs I already recorded in the states. It wouldn’t cost them anything, except a litle extra studio time for me, and they’d have potential hit records without too much expense. I don’t think they realized what kind of popularity I would have in those countries!
You did exceptionally well. Many artists have recorded a hit or two in a foreign language; but they don’t usually end up taking on a long-lasting career in a style specific to the respective country.
I was sent there to do a job, and that’s what I did. I learned the songs to the best of my ability. I had a Japanese coach in my hometown of Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Learning it was enjoyable and came easy to me. I had always wanted to travel. Even as a kid, I would ask, “Why can’t we go to Egypt?” So, I got to travel everywhere, and I was obviously catered to—not a bad thing! It was a lot of fun, and I didn’t have to go to school while I was out of the country.
What was it like being a part of the international scene, as compared to your stateside experiences?
The nice thing about German TV at that time was that they picked up on the type of variety shows that America had done in the ‘50s, like The Dean Martin Show and The Perry Como Show. I was on the first color TV show there singing “Romeo and Juliet.” It was done live. I had a cable mic. One didn’t just go on and do one’s new record; one was part of a production. They’d have ninety-minute shows with choreography and specially written material. Or, if there was a big band, you’d bring in a specific song that you liked and do it with them. That’s where “Abanda” came from. I never recorded it, but I used to do it in my shows. Some took a whole week to produce; some three days. I did one that took three weeks—an hour-long show with no commercials.
Japan I would go to twice a year. I never learned the language—I always thought that each trip was going to be my last! I loved the food; the people were extremely professional; and the bands were always solid. The technicians always got what I needed, which is wonderful if you’re doing a concert tour. Everything was always in the same place as it was the night before.
Were you on your own when it came to recording in Japanese?
It’s a difficult language to learn to speak. There would have to be a translator in the studio, in case I happened to mispronounce something. One time I did, and the whole control booth got quite a laugh! They wouldn’t tell me what I had said, unfortunately. It was very rare that I messed up, because I really studied a lot before I left the states, and I was able to mimic the language perfectly, so I was told.
“Wasurenaiwa” went to number one and became an anthem for you there. Singing in a foreign language, how was your approach different as a singer/songwriter? Did you know what you were singing about, or approach it from technical standpoint?
Very often, the melody will give you the emotion of the song. It’s rare that a very happy lyric is going to have a melancholy melody. First and foremost, I’m a singer. So, having interpreted lyrics and songs before, it was not that difficult. However, I would always ask for a synopsis and feel of the song. I didn’t need to know line for line, but just an idea of what’s happening. “Wasurenaiwa” literally means “I’ll never forget you”—that’s all I needed to know. Obviously, it was a sad song where he went away, she’s waiting—simple as that!
Growing up in Lansdale, what role did music play in your early childhood?
According to my mother, I was singing at two. I would sing all the time. At five, I did my first performance at a ladies’ club. Someone asked my mother if I could sing for an auxiliary luncheon. So, we got a piano player, and I did it and liked it. My mom got me a singing teacher, who got me other shows. All summer long, I’d work with Country & Western bands and take part in talent contests. It was always part of what I was doing. Also, my dad listened to big band music, so I was singing songs by Teresa Brewer, Rosemary Clooney, and Gogi Grant, like “The Wayward Wind”—anything that had a big range. Later, when Rock and Roll started to hit and Connie Francis was extremely popular, I would do her songs.
It seems like that genre has remained an important part of your foundation. In 2005, you released an album of standards entitled Get Happy.
I love those songs. They’re basically singing songs. They say something, they have emotion attached, the melodies are great, and one doesn’t have to show a lot of vocal acrobatics to make it meaningful. It’s part of my growing up process—a lot of songs from that album are ones that my dad played all the time.
How did you come into your stage name?
It was Hugo & Luigi’s idea. I was thirteen when I was signed. Peggy’s a nickname for Margaret, so that was the easy part. They didn’t know what to do with my last name, Bettavia. It sounded weird when they tried to shorten it. So, they asked me when my birthday was, and that’s where March came from. The fact that I was only four-foot-ten then gave them the inspiration for the “Little” part.
How did you feel about the prominent use of “I Will Follow Him” in the Sister Act movies?
I loved it! Lou Christie is a dear friend of mine. We’ve known each other since ’63. He called me and said, “You need to go and see a movie called Sister Act.” I found out later they were actually looking for me. I had come back to the states, but I was still away a lot. The right people didn’t know where to get a hold of me. Not that they needed my permission—but I wouldn’t have minded playing one of the nuns!
These days, in addition to your resurrected pop recording career, you are also performing in Vegas.
Yes, I used to work with Don Rickles on occasion, and now I’m doing a “Legendary Ladies of Rock and Roll” show with Shirley Alston, Darlene Love, and Lesley Gore. I was never around back in the day, so I never got to meet anybody. It’s been super—we’re all old ladies, there’s no competition anymore, everybody does their own thing. We hang out backstage, talk about old times, our children and grandchildren, and have a wonderful time doing it.