In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Little Peggy March was 13 when she was discovered singing at a cousin’s wedding, and she was 14 when she hit #1 with “I Will Follow Him.” (She’s still the youngest female artist ever to hit #1. Three years later, when she graduated high school, March learned that her manager had blown all of the money she’d earned from the song.) “I Will Follow Him” started out its life as “Chariot,” an instrumental pop song that the French composer Frank Pourcel released in 1961. Petula Clark had recorded a version with French lyrics soon after. But March, singing the lyrics written by the veteran songwriter Norman Gimbel, stripped the song away from its source material, turning it into a charged-up hymn to teenage devotion.
If you hear “I Will Follow Him” when you’re in the wrong mood, it is instant headache material — that yelpily repetitive hook, the springy urgency of the backing track, the trebly insistence of the whole thing. And yet it is undeniably effective pop music. It’s full of all the standard accoutrements that big pop singles had at the time: the personality-free backing vocals, the busy string section, the layered production. And yet all those things, in this case, serve the euphoric rush of the song.
Lyrically, the song is simple to the point of ridiculousness. March loves this person so much that she’ll completely erase herself and do whatever it takes to stay with him. And yet the song’s precocity is a big selling point. Because those blind, ridiculous early crushes are a real thing, and March’s vocal, all barely controlled lovestruck joy, sells it completely.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Whoopi Goldberg and a bunch of nuns singing “I Will Follow Him” for the Pope at the end of the 1992 movie Sister Act:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The album version of the 1999 Eminem/Dr. Dre single “Guilty Conscience” didn’t have a chorus. But the video version did, and it was an interpolation of “I Will Follow Him.” Here’s the video: