Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 2 October 1945, New Rochelle, NY) 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 McLean's 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).

McLean's second album American Pie '71 included the 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 four weeks (no. 2 UK), kept the album 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 UK) was being played daily in the entrance to Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam; third album Don McLean '72 was a no. 23 LP, with top 30 'Dreidel'. When McLean sold his working manuscript of 'American Pie' at Christies in 2015, he revealed that the unnamed 'king' in the lyric was Elvis Presley, and that the 'jester on the sidelines' was Bob Dylan.

Playin' Favorites '73 got back to folk/country roots and did not chart in USA, but included 'Everyday', a top 40 single in UK; Homeless Brother '74 was no. 120 LP, including 'The Legend Of Andrew McCrew', a true story about a black hobo who died in 1913, was exhibited in carnivals as a 'petrified man' and not buried until 1973. Two-disc Solo '76 included all the hits, followed by a switch to Arista label for Prime Time '77; with the coast clear he had hits again on the Millennium label: top 30 LP Chain Lightning '81 included a no. 5 cover of the old Roy Orbison hit 'Crying' (no. 1 in UK), also top 30 hit 'Since I Don't Have You'; Believers '82 made top 200 LPs, including a new top 30 version of 'Castles In The Air' (also a minor hit in UK). Dominion '83 on EMI/UK was two-disc set made in concert at London's Dominion Theatre. Love Tracks '87 was on Capitol (with 'Eventually'); Classics, Headroom and The River Of Love were Curb CDs.

McLean was asked by President Clinton to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on New Years Eve 1999 and attended the Founders Dinner at the White House, honoring artists and industrialists. Starry, Starry Nights was a PBS TV special filmed at the Paramount Theatre in Austin Texas, with guests including Nancy Griffith and Garth Brooks, first broadcast in 2000. He 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, and Weird Al Yankovic rewrote it as 'The Saga Begins' to send up Star Wars. Some people were surprised that McLean allowed Yankovic's record, as though he didn't have a sense of humour; in fact a cultural artifact 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', 'White Christmas', 'This Land Is My Land' and 'Respect').