The Jersey Girl

Peggy Santiglia Davison Won Fame With 'My Boyfriend's Back'

October 01, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Tomorrow, Peggy Santiglia Davison will drive to Washington and, not for the first time, watch a lithe young actress in the production of "The Jersey Boys" pretending to be her. Chances are, it will be a joyful experience, though not an entirely comfortable one.

Davison, now 65 and a resident of Carroll County, was one of the Angels, the three-member girl group that enjoyed stratospheric popularity for a few years in the early 1960s. The Angels toured the world. They performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show." They appeared with all the top male singers of the day - Frank Sinatra, Tony Orlando and - more to the point - Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the group of New Jersey friends whose story is recounted in the Tony Award-winning stage musical.

Though the show still is selling out on Broadway, a national tour is taking up residence in Washington for 10 weeks, beginning tonight. Late in the first act, a stunning young woman with chestnut hair will step into the spotlight and belt out "My Boyfriend's Back," the Angels' mega-hit that topped the charts for five weeks in 1963. Davison, then a high school senior, was the lead singer.

"When I see the show, in a way, I'm on, too," she says now. "Sometimes, people recognize me and they watch for my reaction, so I keep a smile on my face. I've had a wonderful life, but there are things in the show that remind me of sad times."

It's not that the Angels are a main part of "Jersey Boys." They appear on stage for just that one song. But Davison has known Valli and the rest of the Four Seasons - plus actor Joe Pesci, singer Bobby Darin and entertainer Connie Francis - practically forever.

"Most of us grew up in Belleville, N.J., and came from Italian-American backgrounds," she says. "We really had a lot in common. We'd get together after our separate shows. We'd visit each other's homes. We knew one another's families."

Still, she'd like to dispel one rumor before it starts. The actress portraying Davison in the show also plays several other roles, including a band groupie who, the singer emphasizes, is not based on her.

"I never went with Frankie Valli, and I never dated Bob Gaudio," Davison says. "We were all just good friends. Some things in the musical depart a little bit from reality. The producers made Tommy DeVito's character a little more shady than he actually was in real life. But it goes with the territory. When you're in the public eye and invite that kind of attention, you can't complain about the occasional exaggeration."

Davison has been singing professionally since she was in seventh grade, and she composed a theme song for Murray Kaufman, a popular local DJ who later became known as "The Fifth Beatle." The pre-teenage Peggy formed a group known as "The Delicates" with two friends, and began touring up and down the East Coast. In early 1963, she joined forces with the sister pair who founded the Angels: Barbara "Bibbs" and Phyllis "Jiggs" Allbut.

"It was the pre-diva era," Davison says. "Generally, there'd be one female group appearing in this big lineup. It wasn't easy being a young girl and traveling with all those men. From the time I was 12 or 13, I was the recipient of a lot of unwanted sexual advances. Looking back, they could have been arrested."

Nor was that the only way in which the singing trio was exploited. Producers assumed they could get away with paying innocent young girls a mere fraction of the amount earned by male artists.

"We were just on the road all the time," Davison says. "We had no idea we weren't going to get what we were owed. We kept thinking, 'Oh, it will work out.' "

In 1998, the Angels filed suit against a songwriting and production team called F.G.G. Productions and two record companies, contending that they were owed 35 years of unpaid royalties. After 11 years, the lawsuit has not been resolved.

"It's still going on in some form," says Davison, though she is vague about the details. "At this point, the principle matters more than the money."

Davison left the Angels in 1965, largely because she didn't like the way the singing trio's management was structured, and embarked on a solo career. But just four years later, she returned. Since 1969, she's been recording and performing regularly with one or both sisters, as well as with other vocal groups.

Once her career settled down, she began to devote more energy to her personal life.

"I was pretty innocent," she says. "Even when I was in my 20s and 30s, I couldn't imagine that someone would be attracted to me just because of what I do, that who I was on stage could be taken as the sum total of who I am."

Eventually, she met Jim Davison, a businessman from Maryland. He was older than the Angels and their teeny-bopper audience, and he had been stationed overseas in the early 1960s.

"He didn't know about that crazy rock 'n' roll," she says, and it didn't take him long to persuade Peggy Santiglia that he was interested in more than her famous name.

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