Singer, songwriter, guitarist
In 1971 folk balladeer Don McLean released “American Pie,” an infectious, though puzzling, eight-and-a-half-minute portrait of the history of rock and roll—and of its gradual despoilment by commercialism. Beginning with rock musician Buddy Holly’s tragic plane crash in 1959, the song alludes to musical and popular figures and symbols of the late 1950s and sixties, its final verses suggesting the disaster at Altamont, when a Rolling Stones open-air concert ended in bloodshed. Mirroring the nation’s own feelings of malaise and lost innocence as the Vietnam War dragged on, “American Pie” became an enormous success, selling three million copies and topping the singles charts for months.
The solitary, introspective McLean was thrust into the spotlight, exulted at concerts, and pressed to explain his lyrics line for line. “It was like a complete creative life lived with the release of one song,” McLean told Richard Hogan in People, recalling how “American Pie” overshadowed all his achievements before or after; for several years following the “American Pie” phenomenon the performer refused to play the song that had assured his fame and fortune. Strident about the neglect his other compositions and their messages received, he antagonized the American music press and his career faltered. McLean continued to enjoy musical success abroad, though, earning many gold records in Israel, Australia, Brazil, and Italy. By 1980 a more mellow and resigned McLean—intent on finding a balance between the anonymity he craved and the notoriety required to maintain an audience for his music—had his first U.S. hit single since the mid-1970s, a remake of “Crying,” the classic Roy Orbison composition. “Adaptability,” he ceded to Hogan, “is the keynote to survival.”
McLean was sickly and asthmatic as a child; his frequent absences from school were spent listening to records and the radio. Rock and roll pioneer Buddy Holly was his idol. During high school McLean played guitar in rock bands, but was gradually drawn to folk music. The choice was a natural fit with his solitary nature; he didn’t like “the problems of working with other musicians,” revealed a New York Times interview with Don Heckman, or being “saddled with a lot of equipment.” After graduation McLean hitchhiked across the East and Midwest, performing at small folk clubs and coffeehouses, avoiding large cities and popular folkie hangouts like New York City’s Greenwich Village. “I just wanted my own little niche,” he explained to Bruce Pollock in Rock, “and I just wanted to be by myself.”
For the Record…
Born October 2, 1945, in New Rochelle, NY; son of Donald (a utility company representative) and Elizabeth (Bucci) McLean; married a sculptor named Carol, 1969 (divorced, 1972). Education: Attended Villanova University, 1964; Lona College, B.B.A., 1968.
Played in rock groups as a teenager; folk performer in coffeehouses and small clubs in the East and Midwest, mid-1960s; worked as a Hudson River troubadour for the New York State Council on the Arts, 1968; crew member of ecology restoration sloop Clearwater, 1969; performed at music festivals, sometimes playing backup guitar; recording artist, 1970—; solo concert performer, 1971—, including appearances at the Kennedy Center, Washington DC, Carnegie Hall, New York City, and abroad; fronted former Buddy Holly backup group the Crickets, late 1980s.
Contributor of 25 original songs to documentary film Other Voices, DHS Films, 1969; composer of scores for film Fraternity Row, Paramount, 1977, and television film Flight of Dragons, ABC. Editor of Songs and Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew, 1969; author of The Songs of Don McLean, volume 1, 1972, volume 2, 1974. President of Benny Bird Corporation; active in world hunger efforts and Hudson River ecology projects.
Awards: Four Grammy Award nominations; Israeli cultural award, 1981; more than two dozen gold records, most earned abroad.
Addresses: Agent —c/o Bennett Morgan & Associates, 242 East 60th St., Ste. 2R, New York, NY 10022.
Nonetheless, McLean’s warm, easy, and often compelling sound, poetic lyrics, and keen observations on the human condition did not escape the appreciation of folk devotees and other musicians; in 1968 the budding singer-songwriter was brought to the attention of the New York State Council on the Arts and became its Hudson River troubadour, presenting ecology and community-oriented free concerts in more than 50 river towns. Veteran folksinger Pete Seeger was among those who heard McLean perform at that time; he is said to have declared the young folk artist the finest singer and songwriter he had met since Bob Dylan.
In 1969 McLean joined the folksinging crew members of the sloop Clearwater, Seeger’s ecological project designed to raise public awareness and funds to halt industrial pollution of eastern rivers. The group gave dockside concerts in 27 cities from Maine to New York, their voyage chronicled for television and in a book edited by McLean. His public profile significantly heightened, McLean began to appear at folk and rock festivals with fellow folk artists Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Janis Ian; he shared billing with pop performers like Laura Nyro and Dionne Warwick as well. McLean had less luck landing a recording contract, though, and his first album, Tapestry —filled with lyrical social-protest songs—caused barely a stir when it was released by Mediarts in 1970.
As McLean became better acquainted with the music industry he realized that genuine talent mattered far less than a carefully packaged image. In “American Pie” he lamented this state of affairs: the fate of music in the hands of the tastemakers. His message in that song was so hidden by complex metaphors that few discerned it—including the industry he indicted. Ironically, McLean’s new record company, United Artists, marketed the single vigorously. In a genius stroke of promotion, the song was leaked to New York City rock radio station WPLJ-FM on the day the celebrated Fillmore East rock theater closed its doors, making the refrain “the day the music died” especially memorable. “American Pie” became the title of McLean’s next album, which sold five million copies and made him an international star. Although it was overshadowed by the sensation of “American Pie,” the record contained a second hit single, a tender ode to Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. Titled simply “Vincent,” the song is remembered by many for its opening phrase: “Starry, starry night.” The ballad has played daily at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, since its release.
With his runaway success, McLean felt a loss of control—over his career, his music, and its meaning. “Dreidel,” a cut from the singer’s next album, dolefully reflected on his struggle to keep former values and convictions alive. The performer ceased concert work and songwriting while coming to grips with the commercialization of his art; in a year’s time he had refocused his energies on his original love, folk music, and looked abroad for performance opportunities.
While McLean’s new songs reflected familiar themes about social injustice and life’s bittersweet challenges, the singer had added a number of old standards to his repertoire, favorites by such diverse artists as Hank Williams, Bing Crosby, and Roy Orbison. The mix of old and new proved a winning formula; McLean’s 1979 album, Chain Lightning, sold 1.5 million copies worldwide. Discussing a second album of original compositions and new renditions of classic songs—1981’s Believers —Stereo Review contributor Noel Coppage admired McLean’s new “range and eclecticism” and “spirit of experimentation.” Perhaps like many music observers of the day, however, Coppage missed the younger, pithier McLean, writing: “I keep wanting McLean to go deeper into certain things, partly because he’s one of the few troubadours working now who seems able to.” McLean’s fans the world over—despite any critical misgivings about his recorded output—have nonetheless continued to delight in this musical survivor’s stage appearances throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.
Tapestry (includes “And I Love You So”), Mediarts/United Artists, 1970.
American Pie (Includes “American Pie” and “Vincent”), United Artists, 1971, reissued, EMI.
Don McLean, United Artists, 1972.
Playin’ Favorites, United Artists, 1973.
Homeless Brother, United Artists, 1974.
Solo, United Artists, 1976.
Prime Time, Arista, 1977.
Chain Lightning, Millennium, 1979.
Believers, Millennium, 1981.
The Best of Don McLean, EMI America, 1987.
Don McLean’s Greatest Hits, Then & Now, Capitol, 1987.
Love Tracks, Capitol, 1988.
For the Memories (two volumes), Gold Castle, 1989.
Don McLean’s Greatest Hits: Live, Gold Castle, 1990.
McLean has written more than 200 songs, several recorded by other artists, including Perry Como’s popular version of “And I Love You So.”
The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh and John Swenson, Random House, 1983.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, revised edition, St. Martin’s, 1989.
New York Times, February 13, 1972.
People, April 27, 1981; February 26, 1990.
Rock, April 23, 1973.
Rolling Stone, September 20, 1990.
Stereo Review, April 1982.
More From encyclopedia.com
Bob Dylan , Bob Dylan Singer, songwriter, guitarist For the Record… Compositions Selected discography Sources In the early 1960s Bob Dylan was heralded as the sp… Shawn Colvin , Colvin, Shawn Singer, songwriter, guitarist During the late 1980s folk-flavored music once again made its way toward the mainstream, through the work… Arlo Guthrie , Guthrie, Arlo Singer, sonwriter, gutiarist In November of 1965, Arlo Guthrie and a group of friends, after finding that the local trash facility in S… John Prine , Prine, John Singer, songwriter The folk songs of singer-songwriter John Prine “have the natural grace and universality one hears only from a born sto… Leadbelly , Singer, songwriter, guitarist The legendary “King of the Twelve-String Guitar,” Huddie Ledbetter—known as “Leadbelly”—was one of the most famous and… Folk Music , Before the twentieth century, a dichotomy prevailed between cultivated music, by educated, formally trained musicians and composers, and folk music,…
About this article
Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article
You Might Also Like