- Don McLean
Don McLean performing at Westport in 2009
Background information Birth name Donald McLean Born October 2, 1945 Genres Folk, folk rock Occupations Singer-songwriter, musician Instruments Vocals, guitar
Years active 1969–present Labels United Artists
Donald "Don" McLean (born October 2, 1945, New Rochelle, New York) is an American singer-songwriter. He is most famous for the 1971 album American Pie, containing the renowned songs "American Pie" and "Vincent".
Both 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 bottoms folk music, particularly the Weavers' 1955 recording At Carnegie Hall. Childhood asthma meant that McLean missed long periods of school, 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 begun making contacts in the music business, becoming friends with folk singer Erik Darling, a latter-day member of the Weavers. 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, and for the next six years 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 favour of becoming resident singer at Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York.
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 his first album, Tapestry, in 1969 in Berkeley, California during the student riots. After being rejected by 34 labels, the album was released by Mediarts and attracted good reviews but little notice outside the folk community.
McLean's major break came when Mediarts was taken over by United Artists Records thus securing for his second album, American Pie, the promotion of a major label. The album spawned two No. 1 hits in the title song and "Vincent". American Pie's success made McLean an international star and renewed 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 3 February 1959. The song popularized the expression "The Day the Music Died" in reference to this event. WCFL DJ Bob Dearborn unraveled the lyrics and first published his interpretation on 7 January 1972, eight days before the song reached #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. Singer Don McLean is said to have composed his "American Pie" sitting at a table in the Tin & Lint, a bar on Caroline Street, in 1969. A plaque marks the table today.
The song was recorded on 26 May 1971 and a month later received its first radio airplay on New York’s WNEW-FM and WPLJ-FM to mark the closing of The Fillmore East, a famous New York concert hall. "American Pie" reached number one on the U.S. Billboard magazine charts for four weeks in 1972, and remains McLean's most successful single release. The single also topped the Billboard Easy Listening survey. With a running time of 8:36, it is also the longest song to reach No. 1. Some stations played only part one of the original split-sided single release.
In 2010, John Ondrasik - the singer-songwriter known as Five for Fighting - released the single "Slice" from the album of the same name. The song is a tribute to "American Pie", a nostalgic look at how it once captivated people's collective ears, minds and voices, and an expression of hope that our increasing individuality hasn't dulled our ability to 'sing the same song'.
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 were: "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".
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. 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 McKracken 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 cry A petrified amazement, a wonder beyond worth A man who found more life in death than life gave him at birth
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 Holland first, followed by the UK and then Australia.
Don’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 14th, 1981 and reached number 28 while "Crying" climbed to number 5 on the pop singles chart.
The early 1980s saw further chart successes in the US 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), "Can't Blame the Wreck on the Train" (US 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.
A new album, Addicted to Black, was released in May 2009 and is available for purchase at his North American concert performances and is available on his website. In addition, McLean is expecting to tour in Europe and Australia in 2010.
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 and a 1973 hit for Perry Como
- "Vincent", a tribute to the 19th century Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh. Although it only reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100, it proved to be a huge hit worldwide. It was a #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 was arranged by McLean and Lee Hays (of The Weavers). Boney M had a number one hit in the UK with a similar song in 1978 under the title Rivers of Babylon, which was not based on this one, although using the same text from Psalm 137.
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 #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.
For the 1982 animated cult-movie The Flight of Dragons produced by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr., McLean sang the opening theme. Unfortunately, no soundtrack has ever been released.
Another hit song associated with McLean (though never recorded by him) is "Killing Me Softly with His Song", which was written about McLean after Lori Lieberman, also a singer/songwriter, saw him singing his composition "Empty Chairs" in concert. Afterwards, Lieberman 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". 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).
McLean’s subsequent albums did not match the commercial success of American Pie but he became a major concert attraction in the US 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 the 1970s, McLean usually toured solo but from 1981 to 1996 was accompanied by John Platania on guitar. He now tours with his own band of Nashville musicians: Tony Migliore, Jerry Kroon, Ralph Childs and Carl "VIP" Viperman.
In 1997, McLean performed "American Pie" with Garth Brooks at Brooks' free concert in Central Park in New York City. CNN reported that "Brooks was joined on stage by two surprise guest stars, Billy Joel and Don McLean, who brought down the house with an acoustic rendition of 'American Pie'."
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 Don McLean signed with the Asgard Agency in London giving them responsibility for booking concert tours outside North America. Since then McLean has performed tours of the UK (2007, 2008 (one appearance), 2010, 2011), Ireland (2007, 2010, 2011), mainland Europe (2008, 2010), Australia and New Zealand (2008, 2011) and South East Asia (2011). On June 26, 2011, Don McLean performed on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts.
McLean had a series of conflicts with Saturday Night Live writer Andy Breckman, starting when Breckman opened for McLean on tour in 1980. Breckman and McLean have penned competing renditions of the origins of this feud, both of which are available online.
Later work and honors
In 1991, Don McLean returned to the UK top 20 with a re-issue of "American Pie".
Iona College conferred an honorary doctorate on McLean in 2001.
In February 2002, "American Pie" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
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".
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 2008, New York City radio station Q104.3 FM WAXQ named Don McLean's "American Pie" number 37 in their 2008 Top 1,043 Songs Of All Time listener-generated countdown.
Year Album Chart Positions US CAN 1970 Tapestry 111 — 1971 American Pie 1 1 1972 Don McLean 23 15 1973 Playin' Favorites — — 1974 Homeless Brother 120 — 1976 Solo (LIVE) — — 1977 Prime Time — — 1978 Chain LightningA 28 25 1981 Believers 156 — 1982 Dominion (LIVE) — — 1987 Love Tracks — — 1989 For the Memories Vols I & II — — And I Love You So (UK Release) — — 1990 Headroom — — 1991 Christmas — — 1995 The River of Love — — 1997 Christmas Dreams — — 2001 Sings Marty Robbins — — Starry Starry Night (LIVE) — — 2003 You've Got to Share: Songs for Children — — The Western Album — — 2004 Christmastime! — — 2005 Rearview Mirror: An American Musical Journey — — 2009 Addicted to Black — —
- AChain Lightning also peaked at #3 on the RPM Country Albums chart in Canada.
Year Album 1980 The Very Best of Don McLean 1987 Don McLean's Greatest Hits · Then & Now 1991 The Best of Don McLean 1992 Favorites and Rarities 2003 Legendary Songs of Don McLean 2007 The Legendary Don McLean 2008 American Pie & Other Hits
Year Single Peak chart positions Album US US AC US Country CAN CAN AC CAN Country UK 1971 "Castles in the Air" — 40 — — — — — Tapestry "American Pie" 1 1 — 1 1 — 2 American Pie 1972 "Vincent" 12 2 — 3 13 — 1 1973 "Dreidel" 21 7 — 16 5 — — Don McLean "If We Try" 58 12 — 82 22 — — "Everyday" — — — — — — 38 Playin' Favorites 1974 "Fool's Paradise" 107 25 — — 90 — — 1975 "Wonderful Baby" 93 1 — — — — — Homeless Brother 1980 "Crying" 5 2 6 7 — 1 1 Chain Lightning 1981 "Since I Don't Have You" 23 6 68 45 2 — — "It's Just the Sun" 83 20 — — 12 — — "Castles in the Air"A 36 7 — — 2 — 47 Believers 1987 "He's Got You" — — 73 — — — — Greatest Hits Then & Now "You Can't Blame the Train" — — 49 — — — — Love Tracks 1988 "Love in My Heart" — — 65 — — — — 1991 "American Pie" (reissue) — — — — — — 2 The Best of Don McLean
- AThe original version of "Castles in the Air" was included on the Tapestry album. In February 1971, it was released as the first single from the album and reached #40 on the Billboard Easy Listening / Adult Contemporary chart. After the success of the "American Pie" single, "Castles in the Air" was included as the B-side to its follow-up, "Vincent", and received enough radio airplay to reach the Hot 100 chart as a "flip". McLean's 1981 version of the song first appeared on his album Believers, and later replaced the original version on some copies of Tapestry.
Year Title Additional information 1982 "The Flight of Dragons" This song was recorded for the film The Flight of Dragons in the early 1980s.
- ^ a b c d e f g h Howard, Alan (2007). The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs. Lulu Press Inc.. p. 420. ISBN 978-1430306825.
- ^ "Don McLean's American Pie". Don McLean Online - The Official Website. http://www.don-mclean.com/americanpie.asp.
- ^ The Great Olivia-Newton John, Festival Records, 1999.
- ^ New York Times, December 12th 1971
- ^ Ellensburg Daily Record, May 24th 1974
- ^ Whitburn, Joel (2002). Top Adult Contemporary: 1961-2001. Record Research. p. 166.
- ^ Addicted to Black CD DonMcLean.com. Retrieved 23 June 2009.
- ^ "Vincent" UK Singles Chart info Chartstats.com. Retrieved 22 June 2009.
- ^ Josh Groban album info JoshGroban.com. Retrieved 23 June 2009.
- ^ a b 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.
- ^ American Pie album song credits
- ^ O'Haire, P. A Killer of a Song, Daily News April 5th 1973. p6
- ^ Davis, Sheila (1984). The Craft of Lyric Writing. Writers Digest Books. pp. 13. ISBN 0898791499. http://books.google.com/?id=uVePZ1Qwtb0C&pg=PA13&dq=%22Killing+Me+Softly+with+His+Song%22+norman+gimbel#v=onepage&q=%22Killing%20Me%20Softly%20with%20His%20Song%22%20norman%20gimbel&f=false. Retrieved 2010-09-22.
- ^ Billboard Magazine, June 22, 1974. Page 53.
- ^ "Annoy Don McLean, Win $200!" Tayt Harlin, New York Magazine, October 31, 2007
- ^ Don McLean vs. Andy Breckman on the WFMU website
- ^ Don McLean US chart info AllMusic.com. Retrieved 22 June 2009.
- ^ Don McLean UK chart positions Chartstats.com. Retrieved 22 June 2009.
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