Donald McLean, Jr. (born October 2, 1945, New Rochelle, New York) is an American singer-songwriter. He is most famous for his 1971 album American Pie, containing the renowned songs "American Pie" and "Vincent".
The McLean clan traces its roots to the Isle of Mull in the Scottish Hebrides. Both Don's grandfather and father were also named Donald McLean. The Buccis, the family of McLean's mother, Elizabeth, came from Abruzzi 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 young 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, 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 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 Bachelors degree in Business Administration in 1968. He turned down a scholarship to Columbia University Graduate School in favour of becoming resident singer at Caff? Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY.
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 protest 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.
Main article: American Pie
Don McLean's most famous composition, "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 in 1959. The song would popularize the expression "The Day the Music Died" in reference to this event. 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.
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. It is also the longest song to reach No. 1 with a running time of 8:36. Some stations played only part one of the original split-sided single release.
29 years later, pop singer Madonna released a truncated dance-pop cover version of the song. In response, Don McLean said: "I have received many gifts from God but this is the first time I have ever received a gift from a goddess."
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" by Judy Garland, "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby, "This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie, "Respect" by Aretha Franklin and "American Pie".
McLean?s third album, Don McLean, included the song "The Pride Parade" that 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."
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."
1977 saw a brief liaison with Arista Records that yielded the Prime Time album before, in 1978, McLean?s career changed direction and he started recording in Nashville with Elvis Presley?s backing singers, The Jordanaires, and many of Elvis?s musicians. The result was Chain Lightning and the international Number 1, "Crying". 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".
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".
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. It will become available on his website later in 2009. 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, 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 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 this song in 1978 under the title Rivers of Babylon, although the two renditions are so different it is not immediately noticeable that they are versions of the same song.
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 it 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.
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 titled "Killing Me Softly with His Blues," which became the basis for the song written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox and 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, Don 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.
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.