Don McLean is a talented singer-songwriter who began in folk music, performing free on behalf of Pete Seeger’s efforts to clean up the Hudson River. His first album had been turned down by several labels because of his insistence on retaining his own publishing, but Tapestry ’70 was issued on Media Arts, soon taken over by UA; of the songs “And I Love You So” was covered by Perry Como for a Top 30 hit ’73, while his performance of “Empty Chairs” inspired “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox) a Grammy winner and a huge hit for Roberta Flack ’73.
Second album American Pie ’71 incl. irresistibly catchy title track, said to have been inspired by the death of Buddy Holly, but also a sentimental song about America that could be embraced by everybody as the USA reeled from Vietnam and Watergate: the 8.5 minute track as a two-sided single was no.1 for seven weeks and even pulled the first LP into the charts. “Vincent/Castles In The Air” from the same LP was a no. 12 hit and “Vincent” (no.1 in theUK) was being played daily in the entrance to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.
Third album Don McLean ’72 was a no. 23 LP, incl. top 30 “Dreidel”.
“Playin’ Favorites” ’73 got back to folk/country roots and did not chart in the USA, but incl. “Everyday”, top 40 single in the UK.
Homeless Brother ’74 was a no. 120 LP, incl. “The Legend of Andrew McCrew”, a true story about a black hobo who died aged 13, was exhibited in carnivals as a ‘petrified man’, not buried until ’73.
Two-disc, Solo ’76 incl. all the hits, followed by a switch to Arista label for Prime Time ’77.
With the coast clear he had hits again on Millenium label: top 30 LP Chain Lightning ’81 incl. no. 5 cover of old Roy Orbison hit, ‘Crying’ (no. 1 in theUK), also top 30 hit, ‘Since I Don’t Have You’.
Believers ’82 made top 200 LP’s incl. new top 30 version of ‘Castles In The Air’ (also minor hit in theUK).
Dominion ’83 on EMI/UK was two-disc set made in concert atLondon’s Dominion Theatre.
Love Tracks ’87 was on Capitol (incl. ‘Eventually’).
Classics, Headroom and The River of Love were on Curb CD’s.
Don McLean was asked by President Clinton to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on New Year’s Eve 1999 and attended to the Founders Dinner at the White House, honouring artists and industrialists.
“Starry, Starry Nights” was a PBS TV special filmed at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, with guests incl. Nanci Griffith and Garth Brooks and first broadcast in 2000.
Don formed Don McLean Records in 2001: first releases were Don McLean Sings Marty Robbins and 2-CD Starry, Starry Night from the PBS special.
Madonna had covered ‘American Pie’ for a huge international hit in 1999 and Weird Al Yankovic rewrote it as ‘The Saga Begins’ to send up Star Wars. Some people were surprised that Don allowed Yankovic’s record, as though he didn’t have a sense of humour; in fact a cultural artefact can only be used for this kind of affectionate satire if it is deeply loved in the first place.
Finally, ‘American Pie’ was named the fifth greatest song of the 20th Century by the NEA-RIAA (after, ‘Over The Rainbow’, ‘WhiteChristmas’, ‘This Land Is My Land’ and ‘Respect’).
Honours continued to follow:IonaCollegeconferred an honorary doctorate on Don in 2001 and a year later “American Pie” was finally inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In 2004 Don McLean was inaugurated into the National Academy of Popular Music Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. His award was presented by Garth Brooks who paid this tribute: “Don McLean his work, like the man himself is very deep and very compassionate. His pop anthem American Pie is a cultural phenomenon, and people are still trying to decode it after 35 years! He wrote other great songs like, And I Love You So, If We Try, Wonderful Baby, Winterwood, and my personal favorite Empty Chairs, which just kills me as a fan and a songwriter.”
In 2007 Don McLean shared his life story for the first time in Alan Howard’s book “The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly with His Songs”.
In 2011 Don performed on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival (“The veteran singer-songwriter’s take on “American Pie” , with multiple extra choruses, was another heartwarming, communal high” – The Independent).
Also in 2012 Don was awarded the BBC Folk Music Lifetime Achievement Award and performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. A busy year also saw the release of “American Troubadour” on CD and DVD and a full colour coffee table book biography of the same name. The DVD charting Don’s life and career has subsequently been broadcast on TV worldwide (regularly on Sky Arts in theUK).
In 2014 Don performed for 30,000 at the Stagecoach Festival – one of the premier country music events in the US. According to the Daily News “the audience went wild, screaming, jumping, dancing. Even after the song was over, the audience still lingered, basking in the afterglow of the performance”
Colin Norton… I remember my first trip to LA in December 1971. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “American Pie”….
Will Cornell… When I went to high school in upstate NY, my track coach met Don McLean at one of those “Clearwater” gigs (he lived in Croton on the Hudson River). He knew the school had a few hundred bucks for entertainment purposes so invited Don to perform a special show (during school hours, yay!). A nice show, he had us singing along with a new song he’d just finished…unfortunately some idiot dropped sneezing powder from the balcony and Don asked if everyone was allergic to the song. Anyway, that song, “American Pie” was a huge hit two months later. I defend Coach McCaffrey’s “coolness” factor to this day. If he’d hired Don a few months later, it would have cost more…a LOT more.