(Read all about Don McLean after the video)
Donald "Don" McLean III (born October 2, 1945) is an American singer-songwriter best known for the 1971 album American Pie, containing the songs "American Pie" and "Vincent".
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.
Though some of his early musical influences included Frank Sinatra and Buddy Holly, 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. By age 16 he had bought his first guitar and began making contacts in the music business, becoming friends with folk singers 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."
When McLean was 15, his father died. Fulfilling his father's request, McLean graduated from Iona Preparatory School in 1963, and briefly attended Villanova University, dropping out after four months. 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 Gaslight Cafe in New York, the Newport Folk Festival, the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., and the Troubadour in Los Angeles. He 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 and The Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
Later that year, with the help of a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, McLean began reaching a wider audience, 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 had not existed 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 Billboard Hot 100 from January 15-February 5, 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".
On April 7, 2015, McLean’s original working manuscript for “American Pie” sold for $1,205,000 (£809,524/€1,109,182) at Christie’s auction rooms, New York, making it the third highest auction price achieved for an American literary manuscript.
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, Lonesome Traveler 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 cry
A petrified amazement, a wonder beyond worth
A man who found more life in death than life gave him at birth
Joel Dorn later collaborated on the McLean career retrospective Rearview Mirror, released in 2005 on Dorn's own label, Hyena Records. In 2006, Dorn reflected on working with McLean:
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.
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 of his songs. Orbison thought McLean did a better job than he did and even went so far as 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 singer 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. In 1991, EMI reissued the "American Pie" single in the United Kingdom and McLean performed on Top of the Pops. In 1992, previously unreleased songs became available on Favorites and Rarities while Don McLean Classics featured new studio recordings of "Vincent" and "American Pie".