Don McLean at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury in July 2013
|Birth name||Donald McLean III|
October 2, 1945 |
New Rochelle, New York
|Genres||Folk, rock, folk rock|
"At his core Don is an American individualist – he does things his own way… Don is a poet like a Byron or a Keats in that regard for having a pop sensibility mixed with folk music and rock n roll… I think for centuries to come you'll hear people doing cover versions of his songs." Douglas Brinkley
McLean's grandfather and father were also named Donald McLean. The Buccis, the family of McLean's mother, Elizabeth, came from Abruzzo in central Italy. They left Italy and settled in Port Chester, New York, at the end of the 19th century. He has other extended family in Los Angeles and Boston.
As a teenager, McLean became interested in folk music, particularly the Weavers' 1955 recording At Carnegie Hall. Childhood asthma meant that McLean missed long periods of school, particularly music lessons, and although he slipped back in his studies, his love of music was allowed to flourish. He often performed shows for family and friends. By age 16 he had bought his first guitar (a Harmony acoustic archtop with a sunburst finish) and began making contacts in the music business, becoming friends with folk singer Erik Darling and Fred Hellerman, both members of the Weavers. Hellerman said "He called me one day and said I'd like to come and visit you and that's what he did! We became good friends - he has the most remarkable music memory of anyone I've ever known. McLean recorded his first studio sessions (with singer Lisa Kindred) while still in prep school.
McLean graduated from Iona Preparatory School in 1963, and briefly attended Villanova University, dropping out after four months. While at Villanova he became friends with singer/songwriter Jim Croce.
After leaving Villanova, McLean became associated with famed folk music agent Harold Leventhal for several months before teaming up with personal manager Herb Gart for 18 years. For the next six years he performed at venues and events including the Bitter End and the Gaslight Cafe in New York, the Newport Folk Festival, the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., and the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Concurrently, McLean attended night school at Iona College and received a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1968. He turned down a scholarship to Columbia University Graduate School in favor of pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter, performing at such venues as Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Later in 1968, with the help of a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, McLean began reaching a wider public, with visits to towns up and down the Hudson River. He learned the art of performing from his friend and mentor Pete Seeger. McLean accompanied Seeger on his Clearwater boat trip up the Hudson River in 1969 to raise awareness about environmental pollution in the river. During this time McLean wrote songs that would appear on his first album, Tapestry. McLean co-edited the book Songs and Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew with sketches by Thomas B. Allen for which Pete Seeger wrote the foreword. Seeger and McLean sang "Shenandoah" on the 1974 Clearwater album.
McLean recorded Tapestry in 1969 in Berkeley, California, during the student riots. After being rejected 72 times by labels, the album was released by Mediarts, a label that did not exist when Don first started to look for a label. It attracted good reviews but little notice outside the folk community, though on the Easy Listening chart "Castles In The Air" was a success, and in 1973 "And I Love You So" became a number 1 Adult Contemporary hit for Perry Como.
McLean's major break came when Mediarts was taken over by United Artists Records thus securing the promotion of a major label for his second album, American Pie. The album spawned two No. 1 hits in the title song and "Vincent". American Pie's success made McLean an international star and piqued interest in his first album, which charted more than two years after its initial release.
McLean's magnum opus, "American Pie", is a sprawling, impressionistic ballad inspired partly by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) in a plane crash on February 3, 1959. The song popularized the expression "The Day the Music Died" in reference to this event.
The song was recorded on May 26, 1971, and a month later received its first radio airplay on New York's WNEW-FM and WPLJ-FM to mark the closing of Fillmore East, the famous New York concert hall. "American Pie" reached number one on the Hot 100 from 15 January - 5 February 1972 and remains McLean's most successful single release. The single also topped the Billboard Easy Listening survey. With a total running time of 8:36 encompassing both sides of the single, it is also the longest song to reach No. 1. Some stations played only part one of the original split-sided single release.
WCFL DJ Bob Dearborn unraveled the lyrics and first published his interpretation on January 7, 1972, eight days before the song reached No. 1 nationally (see "Further reading" under American Pie). Numerous other interpretations, which together largely converged on Dearborn's interpretation, quickly followed. McLean declined to say anything definitive about the lyrics until 1978. Since then McLean has stated that the lyrics are also somewhat autobiographical and present an abstract story of his life from the mid-1950s until the time he wrote the song in the late 1960s.
In 2001 "American Pie" was voted No. 5 in a poll of the 365 Songs of the Century compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. The top five: "Over the Rainbow", written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg (performed by Judy Garland in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz); "White Christmas", written by Irving Berlin (best-known performance by Bing Crosby); "This Land Is Your Land", written and performed by Woody Guthrie; "Respect", written by Otis Redding (best-known performance by Aretha Franklin); and "American Pie".
Mike Mills of REM reflected that "American Pie just made perfect sense to me as a song and that’s what impressed me the most. I could say to people this is how to write songs. When you’ve written at least three songs that can be considered classic that is a very high batting average and if one of those songs happens to be something that a great many people think is one of the greatest songs ever written you’ve not only hit the top of the mountain but you’ve stayed high on the mountain for a long time.”
Personnel from the American Pie album sessions were retained for his third album Don McLean, including producer, Ed Freeman, Rob Rothstein on bass and Warren Bernhardt on piano. The song "The Pride Parade" provides an insight into McLean's immediate reaction to stardom. McLean told Melody Maker magazine in 1973 that Tapestry was an album by someone previously concerned with external situations. American Pie combines externals with internals and the resultant success of that album makes the third one (Don McLean) entirely introspective."
Other songs written by McLean for the album included "Dreidel" (number 21 on the Billboard chart) and "If We Try" (number 58), which was subsequently recorded by Olivia Newton-John. "On the Amazon" from the 1920s musical Mr Cinders was an unusual choice but became an audience favorite in concerts and featured in Till Tomorrow, a documentary film about McLean produced by Bob Elfstrom (Elfstrom held the role of Jesus Christ in Johnny and June Cash's Gospel Road). The film shows McLean in concert at Columbia University as he was interrupted by a bomb scare. He left the stage while the audience stood up and checked under their seats for anything that resembled a bomb. After the all-clear, McLean re-appeared and sang "On the Amazon" from exactly where he had left off. Don Heckman reported the bomb scare in his review for The New York Times entitled "Don McLean Survives Two Obstacles."
The fourth album, Playin' Favorites was a top-40 hit in the UK in 1973 and included the Irish folk classic, "Mountains of Mourne" and Buddy Holly's "Everyday", a live rendition of which returned McLean to the UK Singles Chart. McLean said, "The last album (Don McLean) was a study in depression whereas the new one (Playin' Favorites) is almost the quintessence of optimism, with a feeling of 'Wow, I just woke up from a bad dream.'"
The 1974 album Homeless Brother, produced by Joel Dorn, was McLean's final studio collaboration with United Artists. The album featured fine New York session musicians, including Ralph McDonald on percussion, Hugh McCracken on guitar and a guest appearance by Yusef Lateef on flute. The Persuasions sang the background vocals on "Crying in the Chapel" and Cissy Houston provided a backing vocal on "La La Love You".
The album's title song was inspired by Jack Kerouac's book, The Lonesome Traveller in which Kerouac tells the story of America's "homeless brothers," or hobos. The song features background vocals by Pete Seeger.
The song "The Legend of Andrew McCrew" was based on an article published in The New York Times concerning a black Dallas hobo named Anderson McCrew who was killed when he leapt from a moving train. No one claimed him, so a carnival took his body, mummified it, and toured all over the South with him, calling him the "The Famous Mummy Man." McLean's song inspired radio station WGN in Chicago to tell the story and give the song airplay in order to raise money for a headstone for Anderson McCrew's grave. Their campaign was successful and McCrew's body was exhumed and buried in the Lincoln Cemetery in Dallas. The tombstone had an inscription with words from the fourth verse of McLean's song:
What a way to live a life, and what a way to die
Left to live a living death with no one left to cryA man who found more life in death than life gave him at birth
A petrified amazement, a wonder beyond worth
Of the more than 200 studio albums I've produced in the past forty plus years, there is a handful; maybe fifteen or so that I can actually listen to from top to bottom. Homeless Brother is one of them. It accomplished everything I set out to do. And it did so because it was a true collaboration. Don brought so much to the project that all I really had to do was capture what he did, and complement it properly when necessary.
Also from the Homeless Brother album, "Wonderful Baby" was a number 1 on the AOR chart in 1975 and was later recorded by Fred Astaire. The song had been inspired by Joel Dorn's son and reflected McLean's interest in 1930s music.
1977 saw a brief liaison with Arista Records that yielded the Prime Time album and, in October 1978, the single "It Doesn't Matter Anymore". This was a track from the Chain Lightning album that should have been the second of four with Arista. McLean had started recording in Nashville, with Elvis Presley's backing singers, The Jordanaires, and many of Elvis's musicians. However the Arista deal broke down following artistic disagreements between McLean and the Arista chief, Clive Davis. Consequently McLean was left without a record contract in the USA, but through continuing deals the Chain Lightning album was released by EMI in Europe and by Festival Records in Australia. In April 1980, the track "Crying" from the album began picking up airplay on Dutch radio stations and McLean was called to Europe to appear on several important musical variety shows to plug the song and support its release as a single by EMI. The song achieved number 1 status in the Netherlands first, followed by the UK and then Australia.
McLean's number 1 successes in Europe and Australia led to a new deal in the USA with Millennium Records. They issued the Chain Lightning album two and a half years after it had been recorded in Nashville, and two years after its release in Europe. It charted on February 14, 1981 and reached number 28 while "Crying" climbed to number 5 on the pop singles chart. Roy Orbison himself thought that McLean’s version was the best cover he’d ever heard of one his songs. Orbison thought McLean did a better job than he did and even went so far to say that the voice of Don McLean is one of the great instruments of 20th Century America. According to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, “McLean’s voice could cut through steel - he is a very pure singer and he's up there with the best of them. He's a very talented signer and songwriter and he deserves his success.”
The early 1980s saw further chart successes in the U.S. with "Since I Don't Have You", a new recording of "Castles in the Air" and "It's Just the Sun".
In 1987, the release of the country-based Love Tracks album gave rise to the hit singles "Love in My Heart" (a top-10 in Australia), "You Can't Blame the Train" (U.S. country No. 49), and "Eventually". The latter two songs were written by Houston native Terri Sharp.
Don McLean has continued to record new material including River of Love in 1995 on Curb Records and, more recently, the albums You've Got to Share, Don McLean Sings Marty Robbins and The Western Album on his own Don McLean Music label.
Addicted to Black, was released in May 2009.
McLean's other well-known songs include:
- "And I Love You So" was covered by Elvis Presley, Helen Reddy, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campbell, Engelbert Humperdinck, Howard Keel, Claude François, and a 1973 hit for Perry Como
- "Vincent", a tribute to the 19th-century Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh. Although it only reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, it proved to be a huge hit worldwide. "You can’t change a note in that song" (Mike Mills, REM). It was a No. 1 hit single in the UK Singles Chart. This song was covered by NOFX on their album titled 45 or 46 Songs That Weren't Good Enough to Go on Our Other Records, and also appears on the Fat Wreck Chords compilation Survival of the Fattest. "Vincent" was also covered by Josh Groban on his 2001 debut album.
- "Castles in the Air", which McLean recorded twice. His 1981 re-recording was a top-40 hit, reaching #36 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1981.
- "Wonderful Baby", a tribute to Fred Astaire that Astaire himself recorded. Primarily rejected by pop stations, it reached #1 on the Billboard Easy Listening survey.
- "Superman's Ghost", a tribute to George Reeves, who portrayed Superman on television in the 1950s
- "The Grave", a song that McLean had written about the Vietnam War, was covered by George Michael in 2003 in protest against the Iraq War.
The American Pie album features a version of Psalm 137, entitled "Babylon". The song is based on a canon by Philip Hayes and was arranged by McLean and Lee Hays (of The Weavers). "Babylon" was performed in the Mad Men episode of the same name despite the fact that the song would not be released until 10 years after the time in which the episode is set.
In 1980, McLean had an international number one hit with a cover of the Roy Orbison classic, "Crying". It was only after the record became a success overseas that it was released in the U.S. The single hit No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981. Orbison himself once described McLean as "the voice of the century", and a subsequent re-recording of the song saw Orbison incorporate elements of McLean's version.
Another hit song associated with McLean (though never recorded by him) is "Killing Me Softly with His Song", which was claimed by Lori Lieberman to have been written about McLean after she, also a singer/songwriter, saw him singing his composition "Empty Chairs" in concert. According to her, afterwards, she wrote a poem about the experience and shared it with Norman Gimbel, who had long been searching for a way to use a phrase he had copied from a novel badly translated from Spanish to English, "killing me softly with his blues". Allegedly, Gimbel and Charles Fox reworked the poem and the phrase into the song "Killing Me Softly with His Song", recorded by Roberta Flack (and later covered by The Fugees). However, this claim is disputed, notably by Fox.
Lieberman said "I just felt that he was singing about me and my life. I was sort of just spell-bound; he was just so honest and his singing in that particular song [Empty Chairs] was just so true. What I love about his voice is how it's very clear and musical and I believe his mission is so strong. He knows why he's here. He's here to tell his story and he's here to get that across and that's what I love about him."
Madonna version of "American Pie"
American pop star Madonna released a cover version of the song "American Pie" in March 2000 to promote the soundtrack to her film The Next Best Thing (2000). Her cover is much shorter than the original (it contains only the beginning of the first verse and all of the second and sixth verses) and was recorded as a dance-pop song. It was co-produced by Madonna and William Orbit, after Rupert Everett (Madonna's co-star in The Next Best Thing) had convinced her to cover the song for the film's soundtrack.
Released in March 2000, the song was a worldwide hit, reaching No. 1 in many countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Italy, Germany (her first since "La Isla Bonita", in 1987), Switzerland, Austria, and Finland. The song was the 19th best selling of 2000 in the UK. The single was not released commercially in the United States, but it reached No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 due to strong radio airplay.
McLean's albums did not match the commercial success of American Pie but he became a major concert attraction in the U.S. and overseas. His repertoire included old concert hall numbers and the catalogues of singers such as Buddy Holly, and another McLean influence, Frank Sinatra. The years spent playing gigs in small clubs and coffee houses in the 1960s transformed into well-paced performances. McLean's first concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Albert Hall in London in 1972 were critically acclaimed.
In recent years McLean has continued to tour North America, Europe (2011, 2012) and Australia (2013). In June 2011 McLean appeared at the Glastonbury Festival in Pilton, UK and in 2012 at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in California.
Later work and honors
In 1991, Don McLean returned to the UK top 20 with a re-issue of "American Pie".
In 2004, McLean was inaugurated into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Garth Brooks presented the award and said "Don McLean: his work, like the man himself, is very deep and very compassionate. His pop anthem 'American Pie' is a cultural phenomenon".
Two years later, Brooks repaid the favor by appearing as a special guest (with Nanci Griffith) on McLean's first American TV special, broadcast as the PBS special Starry Starry Night. A month later, McLean wound up the 20th century by performing "American Pie" at the Lincoln Memorial Gala in Washington D.C. Brooks again played "American Pie" during We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on January 18, 2009.
In 2007, the biography The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs was published. Biographer Alan Howard conducted extensive interviews for this, the only book-length biography of the often reclusive McLean to date.
In February 2012 McLean won the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Life Time Achievement award.
In March 2012 the PBS network broadcast a feature-length documentary about the life and music of Don McLean called "American Troubadour" produced by 4-time Emmy Award winning film maker Jim Brown.
McLean is one of UK singer-songwriter Jake Bugg's primary influences. Bugg said McLean's song "Vincent" was "the first song I liked" after hearing it on an episode of The Simpsons. He devoured McLean's back catalogue and then delved into the artists that inspired McLean - including Buddy Holly and The Weavers. Tupac Shakur also cited McLean's "Vincent" as a personal inspiration.
McLean is credited as writer of Drake's song "Doing it Wrong" featuring Stevie Wonder. The song includes lyrics from two McLean compositions - "The Wrong Thing To Do" and "When a Good Thing Goes Bad" both of which featured on his 1977 album "Prime Time".
|1989||For the Memories Vols I & II||—||—||—|
|And I Love You So (UK Release)||—||—||—|
|1995||The River of Love||—||—||—|
|2001||Sings Marty Robbins||—||—||—|
|2003||You've Got to Share: Songs for Children||—||—||—|
|The Western Album||—||—||—|
|2005||Rearview Mirror: An American Musical Journey||—||—||—|
|2009||Addicted to Black||—||—||—|
- ATapestry wasn't charted in the UK until 1972 after the success of American Pie.
- BChain Lightning also peaked at No. 3 on the RPM Country Albums chart in Canada.
- Don McLean: An American Troubadour (Television production). UK: Sky Arts 1. 2013.
- Howard, Alan (2007). The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs. Lulu Press Inc. p. 420. ISBN 978-1-4303-0682-5.
- "Don McLean's American Pie". Don McLean Online - The Official Website.
- The Great Olivia Newton-John, Festival Records, 1999.
- New York Times, December 12, 1971
- Ellensburg Daily Record, May 24, 1974
- Whitburn, Joel (2002). Top Adult Contemporary: 1961-2001. Record Research. p. 166.
- Addicted to Black CD DonMcLean.com. Retrieved June 23, 2009.
- "Vincent" UK Singles Chart info Chartstats.com. Retrieved June 22, 2009.
- Josh Groban album info JoshGroban.com. Retrieved June 23, 2009.
- Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 8th Edition (Billboard Publications), page 416.
- Hyatt, Wesley (1999). The Billboard Book of #1 Adult Contemporary Hits (Billboard Publications), page 166.
- The Muses Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets and Canons by Philip Hayes (London, 1786)
- American Pie album song credits
- O'Haire, P. A Killer of a Song, Daily News April 5, 1973. p6
- Davis, Sheila (1984). The Craft of Lyric Writing. Writers Digest Books. p. 13. ISBN 0-89879-149-9. Retrieved September 22, 2010.
- Billboard Magazine, June 22, 1974. Page 53.
- Daily News http://www.dailynews.com/events/20140427/stagecoach-2014-don-mclean-performs-emotional-set-for-fans-celebs-ashton-kutcher-and-mila-kunis
- "Iona College". Colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com. Retrieved January 12, 2013.
- "Radio 2 - Events - Radio 2 Folk Awards 2012". BBC. February 8, 2012. Retrieved April 15, 2012.
- "Jake Bugg: I have to Pinch Myself". BBC News. Retrieved July 14, 2014.
- "Tupac Shakur: Biography". Retrieved July 14, 2014.
- "Doing it Wrong". Retrieved July 15, 2014.
- "A Photographer's Point of View". Maine Home + Design. August 1, 2009. Retrieved February 12, 2013.
- The Official Web Site of Don McLean and American Pie
- Allmusic Entry
- Tom Redmond - Working with Chet Atkins: an interview with Don McLean