Donald 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 (US #1 for four weeks in 1972 and UK #2).
His other hit singles include "Vincent" (US #12, UK #1 in 1972), "Dreidel" (US #21 in 1972), a rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying" (US #5, UK #1 in 1980), a rendition of the Skyliners' "Since I Don't Have You" (US #23 in 1980), and "Wonderful Baby" (US AC #1 in 1975).
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.
McLean's grandfather and father, both also named Donald McLean, had roots originating in Scotland. 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. 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:
I feel it is important to note that Herb did many good things for me in the beginning but could not deal with my success, as odd as that may sound.
In about 1982 Herb told me his associate Walter Hofer who ran Copyright Service Bureau ( a collection business for song publishers) had stolen $90,000 from my account but had "put it back" . This was a cover story and a lie. Furthermore the amount turned out to be more like $200,000 and because Gart was now complicit in this crime I fired him. He sued me but settled for a small amount and was never heard from again. There is so much of this in my business and artists usually sweep it under the rug but I don’t . I want people to know the truth about my journey. Don McLean.
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”
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 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, eight days before the song 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", a tribute to the 19th-century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. The inspiration came to McLean one morning while looking at a book about Vincent 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 REM 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 albumLove 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.
McLean's other well-known songs include the following.
- "And I Love You So" featured on McLean's first album Tapestry first released in 1969. The song was later recorded by Elvis Presley, Helen Reddy, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campbell, Engelbert Humperdinck, Howard Keel, Claude François, and a 1973 hit for Perry Como. The song was performed at the Royal Wedding reception of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018.
- "Castles in the Air", which McLean recorded twice. His 1981 re-recording was a top-40 hit, reaching number 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 number 1 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart.
- "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 recorded by George Michael in 2003 in protest against the Iraq War.
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 claimed by Lori Lieberman to have been written about McLean after she, also a singer-songwriter, saw him singing his composition "Empty Chairs" in concert. Afterwards (according to Lieberman) she 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". Allegedly, Gimbel and Charles Fox reworked the poem and the phrase into the song "Killing Me Softly with His Song", originally recorded by Lieberman and later by Roberta Flack (and later recorded by the Fugees). This claim was disputed, notably by Fox. Subsequently, however, the matter reached an unequivocal conclusion when contemporaneous articles from the early 1970s were exhumed, all of them vindicating Lieberman.
In an April 5, 1973, article in the New York Daily News, Norman Gimbel was quoted as follows: "She [Lori Lieberman] told us about this strong experience she had listening to McLean ("I felt all flushed with fever / Embarrassed by the crowd / I felt he had found my letters / And read each one out loud / I prayed that he would finish / But he just kept right on…"). I had a notion this might make a good song so the three of us discussed it. We talked it over several times, just as we did for the rest of the numbers we wrote for this album and we all felt it had possibilities."
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:
“His masterpiece ("American Pie") remains one of the great achievements of the singer-songwriter era: eight and a half minutes of allegory, reflection and melody documenting the history of rock’n’roll and the death of 1950s innocence. He played it, of course, and brilliantly, getting everyone creaking on to their feet and singing along. Before that came almost two hours of well-worn rock’n’roll and acoustic folk that placed McLean somewhere between a straight-up entertainer and a poetic maverick.”
– Marilynn Kingwell, 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
In 1991, McLean returned to the UK top 20 with a re-issue of "American Pie".
Iona College conferred an honorary doctorate on him in 2001.
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 July 2017, "American Pie" peaked at number 6 on the Billboard Rock Digital Songs Sales chart, nearly 50 years after its first release..
McLean 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 Patricia Shnier McLean of Montreal, Canada from 1987 to 2016; they have two children: Jackie, of the band Roan Yellowthorn and Wyatt and two grandchildren.
The end of the marriage saw Don McLean arrested for domestic violence. However, the charges were dismissed one year later as a result of his abiding by the terms of a plea agreement.
Don 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.
|1989||For the Memories Vols I & II||—||—||—|
|And I Love You So (UK Release)||—||—||—|
|1995||The River of Love||—||—||—|
|2001||Sings Marty Robbins||—||—||—|
|2003||You've Got to Share: Songs for Children||—||—||—|
|The Western Album||—||—||—|
|2005||Rearview Mirror: An American Musical Journey||—||—||—|
|2009||Addicted to Black||—||—||—|
- aTapestry wasn't charted in the UK until 1972, after the success of "American Pie".
- bChain Lightning also peaked at number 3 on the RPM Country Albums chart in Canada.