Don McLeanDonald McLean III (born October 2, 1945) is an American singer-songwriter, best known for his 1971 hit song "American Pie", an 8.5-minute folk rock "cultural touchstone" about the loss of innocence of the early rock and roll generation.
His other hit singles include "Vincent", "Dreidel", a rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying", a rendition of the Skyliners' "Since I Don't Have You", and "Wonderful Baby".
His composition "And I Love You So" has been sung by Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Helen Reddy, Glen Campbell, and others, and in 2000, Madonna had a hit with a rendition of "American Pie".
In 2004, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In January 2018, BMI certified that "American Pie" and "Vincent" had reached five million and three million airplays respectively.
Musical rootsMcLean's grandfather and father, both also named Donald McLean, had roots originating in Scotland. McLean's mother, Elizabeth Bucci, originated from Abruzzo in central Italy. 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. He often missed long periods of school because of childhood asthma, particularly music lessons, and although McLean 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 the folk singers Erik Darling and Fred Hellerman 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, the singer graduated from Iona Preparatory School in 1963, and briefly attended Villanova University, dropping out after four months. After leaving Villanova, McLean became associated with the famed folk music agent Harold Leventhal for several months before teaming up with his 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. Gart's 18-year tenure as McLean's manager ended acrimoniously in the 1980s. Following Herb Gart's death in September 2018, Don McLean wrote: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 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 appeared 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 still thinks about his experiences of working with Seeger: "Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of Pete and how generous and supportive he was. If you could understand his politics and you got to know him, he really was some kind of modern day saint”.
Early breakthroughMcLean 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 he first started to look for a label. He worked on the album for a couple of years before putting it out. 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 launched two number one 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 in 1959, and developments in American youth culture in the subsequent decade. The song popularized the expression "The Day the Music Died" in reference to the crash.
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 to February 5, 1972, and remains McLean's most successful single release. The single also topped the Billboard Easy Listening chart. With a total running time of 8:36 encompassing both sides of the single, it is also the longest song to reach number 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, four days after the song reached number 1 on rival station WLS, six days before it reached number 1 on WCFL, and eight days before it reached number 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 number 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.
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.
"Vincent (Starry Starry Night)"
"Vincent" is a tribute to the 19th-century Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. The inspiration came to McLean one morning while looking at a book about Van Gogh. As he studied a print of Van Gogh's painting The Starry Night, he realized that a song could be written about the artist through the painting. Although it reached only number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, it proved to be a huge hit worldwide, including reaching number 1 in the UK Singles Chart. Mike Mills of R.E.M. said "You can't change a note in that song". The song was performed by NOFX on their album 45 or 46 Songs That Weren't Good Enough to Go on Our Other Records and appears on the Fat Wreck Chords compilation Survival of the Fattest. "Vincent" was sung by Josh Groban on his 2001 debut album. In 2018, singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding recorded a new, stripped back, acoustic guitar-driven version of the song.
Personnel from the American Pie album sessions were retained for his third album Don McLean, including the 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 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 include "Dreidel" (number 21 on the Billboard chart) and "If We Try" (number 58), which was 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 titled "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."
The 1974 album Homeless Brother, produced by Joel Dorn, was McLean's final studio recording for 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 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 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 label, Hyena Records. In 2006, Dorn reflected on working with McLean:
Of the more than 200 studio albums I've produced in the past 40 plus years, there is a handful; maybe 15 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.
In 1977 a brief liaison with Arista Records that yielded the album Prime Time, and in October 1978, the single "It Doesn't Matter Anymore". This was a track from the album Chain Lightning that should have been the second of four with Arista. McLean had started recording in Nashville, Tennessee, with Elvis Presley's backing singers, the Jordanaires, and many of Presley'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 United States, but through continuing deals, Chain Lightning was released by EMI in Europe and by Festival Records in Australia.
In April 1980, the Roy Orbison song "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 United States with Millennium Records, which issued Chain Lightning 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, and "Crying" climbed to number 5 on the pop singles chart. Orbison himself thought that McLean's version was the best interpretation 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."
McLean had further chart successes in the United States in the early 1980s 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 album Love Tracks gave rise to the hit singles "Love in My Heart" (a top-10 in Australia), "You Can't Blame the Train" (U.S. country number 49), and "Eventually". The latter two songs were written by Terri Sharp. In 1991, EMI reissued "American Pie" as a single in the United Kingdom, and McLean performed on Top of the Pops. In 1992, previously unreleased songs became available on Favorites and Rarities, and Don McLean Classics featured new studio recordings of "Vincent" and "American Pie".
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 for his own Don McLean Music label. Addicted to Black was released in May 2009.
Other songsMcLean's other well-known songs include the following.
The American Pie album features a version of Psalm 137, titled "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 1981, McLean had an international number one hit with a version of the Roy Orbison classic "Crying". It was only after the record became a success overseas that it was released in the United States. The single hit reached number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981. Orbison himself once described McLean as "the voice of the century", and in a subsequent re-recording of the song, Orbison incorporated 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. However, 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 inspired by Lori Lieberman after she, also a singer-songwriter, saw him singing his composition "Empty Chairs" in concert. Afterwards she shared it with her manager Norman Gimbel, who had long been searching for a way to use a phrase he had copied from a novel translated from Spanish, "killing me softly with his blues". Gimbel passed the lyrics to his songwriting partner Charles Fox who composed the music to "Killing Me Softly with His Song". Lieberman recorded the song and released it in 1972. This initial version was heard by Roberta Flack who recorded it with slight changes to create a number one hit. Two decades later it was recorded by the Fugees who had another hit.
McLean's albums did not match the commercial success of American Pie, but he became a major concert attraction in the United States and overseas. His repertoire included old concert hall numbers and the catalogues of singers such as Buddy Holly and 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 continued to tour the United States, Canada and Europe (2011, 2012) and Australia (2013). In June 2011, McLean appeared at the Glastonbury Festival in Pilton, UK, and in 2014 at California's Stagecoach Country Music Festival.
During 2018, McLean embarked on a world tour with concerts in North America, UK, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Israel, Norway and Finland. His concert at the London Palladium was reviewed positively by The Times:
The Jerusalem Post noted that "McLean was the consummate professional in presenting his master class of the Great American Songbook" in their review of his Tel Aviv concert, June 2018
Later work and honors
Don McLean's alma mater, Iona College (New York), conferred an honorary doctorate on him in 2001. McLean has since been vocal in his criticism of the College: "Iona was, in my day, a college for the average student who wanted to go home after class. The educational experience was perfect for me. I loved the small Greek revival style campus buildings and I got to put on little shows in Doorley Hall auditorium. Since those days, the Irish Christian Brothers have been virtually destroyed by the disgusting behavior of many in their order as charges of mass child molestation have destroyed their ranks. No punishment is harsh enough when you think of trusting Catholic parents giving their children over to these cynical monsters. I am very disappointed in the Irish Christian Brothers and Iona College."In February 2002, "American Pie" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2004, McLean was inducted 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 guest (with Nanci Griffith) on McLean's first American TV special, broadcast as the PBS program 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.
The biography The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs was published in 2007. 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 McLean called Don McLean: American Troubadour produced by four-time Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Jim Brown.
McLean is one of the primary influences on the UK singer-songwriter Jake Bugg, who 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 catalog 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 the 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 were featured on his 1977 album Prime Time.
In March 2017, McLean's single "American Pie" was designated an "aural treasure" by the Library of Congress, "worthy of preservation" in the National Recording Registry "as part of America’s patrimony". In 1991, a re-issue of "American Pie" reached the UK top 20 singles chart and in July 2017, "American Pie" peaked at number 6 on the Billboard Rock Digital Songs Sales chart, nearly 50 years after its first release.
In May 2019, the UCLA Student Alumni Association awarded McLean its George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement. However, the award was rescinded before it was formally bestowed, because of McLean being convicted of domestic abuse. In response, McLean issued the following statement: "UCLA awarded this lifetime achievement award and then took it back because you found out about my squabble with my ex-wife. This has been all over the Internet for three years. Are you people morons? This is settled law. Maybe I need to give you some bribe money to grease the college wheels? I am guilty of nothing to do with assault and you had better make that clear. We live in a dark age of accusation and not law."
On November 7, 2019, McLean returned to New Rochelle to view a new mural depicting a likeness of his younger self, with lyrics from "American Pie", on the side of a building on the corner of 134 North Avenue and Bonnefoy Place, painted by artist Loic Ercolessi for a non-profit organization, Street Art for Mankind. The mural includes the likeness of singer/songwriter Alicia Keys, with lyrics to the song Empire State of Mind, which she performed with Jay-Z. Throughout McLean's career artists including Garth Brooks, Madonna, Drake, Josh Groban and others have recorded his songs. At a ceremony in October 2019, plaques certified by the Recording Industry Association of America for gold, platinum, and multi-platinum sales in the United States as well as presentations from Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom were bestowed on McLean. He said: "As a songwriter your songs are like your children, and you are hopeful everyone loves them as much as you do, but rarely is that the case. I am so grateful that songs I have written have touched so many lives and have been recorded by so many great artists."
Personal lifeMcLean was raised in the Catholic faith of his mother, Elizabeth McLean; his father, Donald McLean, was a Protestant. When McLean was 15, his father died months after their only vacation to Washington D.C.
Don McLean has been married twice, both marriages ending in divorce. His first wife was Carol Sauvion, of Philadelphia, who went on to win an Emmy and Peabody Award for her PBS television series "Craft in America". They were married from 1969 to 1976 and they had no children. His second wife was Patrisha Shnier McLean, of Montreal, Canada, from 1987 to 2016. They have two children— Jackie and Wyatt —and two grandchildren.
The end of the marriage saw McLean arrested and charged with misdemeanor domestic violence stemming from an incident that occurred at his home in Camden, Maine. No other details from the incident were reported. Originally charged with six misdemeanors, McLean pleaded guilty to four as part of a plea agreement. One of the four charges, domestic violence assault, was dismissed. For the remaining three McLean paid around $3,000 in fines and was not sentenced to any jail time. McLean said that it had been “hard emotional times for my wife, my children and me...the very painful breakdown of an almost 30-year relationship. Our hearts are broken and we must carry on."
McLean is an ambassador for Teen Cancer America and performed at the Teen Cancer America and UCLA Health fundraising Backyard Concert in 2018. During the show, McLean sang a duet of his song "Vincent" with Ed Sheeran. The Don McLean Foundation is a charity setup by McLean to be funded by all his income in perpetuity. Its headquarters is based at Lakeview, the Don McLean Maine residence, and it will serve as a center for fundraisers and conferences as well as a nature preserve. Organizations that support the needy in the State of Maine and throughout the United States will be beneficiaries.