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Famed for -- and ultimately defined by -- his perennial "American Pie," singer/songwriter Don McLean was born October 2, 1945, in New Rochelle, New York. After getting his start in the folk clubs of New York City during the mid-'60s, McLean struggled for a number of years, building a small following through his work with Pete Seeger on the Clearwater, a sloop that sailed up and down the eastern seaboard to promote environmental causes.
Still, McLean was primarily singing in elementary schools and the like when, in 1970, he wrote a musical tribute to painter Vincent Van Gogh; the project was roundly rejected by a number of labels, although MediaArts did offer him a contract to record a number of his other songs under the title Tapestry. The album fared poorly, but Perry Como earned a hit with a cover of the track "And I Love You So," prompting United Artists to pick up McLean's contract. He returned in 1971 with American Pie; the title track, an elegiac eight-and-a-half-minute folk-pop epic inspired by the tragic death of Buddy Holly, became a number one hit, and the LP soon reached the top of the charts as well.
The follow-up, "Vincent," was also a smash, and McLean even became the subject of the Roberta Flack hit "Killing Me Softly with His Song"; however, to his credit -- and to his label's horror -- the singer refused to let the success of "American Pie" straitjacket his career. Subsequent records like 1972's self-titled effort and 1974's Playin' Favorites deliberately avoided any attempts to re-create the "American Pie" flavor; not surprisingly, his sales plummeted, and the latter release even failed to chart. After 1974's Homeless Brother and 1976's Solo, United Artists dropped McLean from his contract; he resurfaced on Arista the next year with Prime Time, but when it, too, fared poorly, he spent the next several years without a label.
McLean enjoyed a renaissance of sorts with 1980's Chain Lightning; his first Top 30 LP in close to a decade, it spawned a Top Ten smash with its cover of Roy Orbison's classic "Crying," and his originals "Castles in the Air" and "Since I Don't Have You" both also reached the Top 40. However, 1981's Believers failed to sustain the comeback, and after 1983's Dominion, he was again left without benefit of label support. McLean spent the remainder of his career primarily on the road, grudgingly restoring "American Pie" to his set list and drawing inspiration from the country market; in addition to a number of live sets and re-recordings of old favorites, he also returned to the studio for projects like 1990's For the Memories (a collection of classic pop, country, and jazz covers) and 1995's River of Love (an LP of original material).
Donald "Don" McLean (born October 2, 1945) is an American singer-songwriter. He is most famous for the 1971 album American Pie, containing the songs "American Pie" and "Vincent".
Musical roots 
McLean's grandfather and father were also named Donald McLean. 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.
As a 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, particularly music lessons, 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 latter-day 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 for several months before teaming up with 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. Concurrently, 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 becoming resident singer at Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York.
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 raise awareness about 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.
Recording career 
Early breakthrough 
McLean recorded his first album, 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 did not exist when Don first started to look for a label. 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 "And I Love You So" became a number 1 hit for Perry Como.
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 piqued interest in his first album, which charted more than two years after its initial release.
American Pie 
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 on February 3, 1959. The song popularized the expression "The Day the Music Died" in reference to this event. WCFL DJ Bob Dearborn unraveled the lyrics and first published his interpretation on January 7, 1972, eight days before the song reached #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.
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 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. With a running time of 8:36, it is also the longest song to reach No. 1. Some stations played only part one of the original split-sided single release.
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" written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg (performed by Judy Garland in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz), "White Christmas" written by Irving Berlin (best-known performance by Bing Crosby), "This Land Is Your Land" written and performed by Woody Guthrie, "Respect" written by Otis Redding (best-known performance by Aretha Franklin), and "American Pie".
Subsequent recordings 
Personnel from the American Pie album sessions were retained for his third album Don McLean, including 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 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."
Other songs written by McLean for the album included "Dreidel" (number 21 on the Billboard chart) and "If We Try" (number 58), which was subsequently 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 entitled "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, with a feeling of "Wow, I just woke up from a bad dream."
The 1974 album Homeless Brother, produced by Joel Dorn, was McLean's final studio collaboration with United Artists. The album featured fine New York session musicians, including Ralph McDonald on percussion, Hugh McKracken 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, The Lonesome Traveller 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 "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 Anderson 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 Don McLean career retrospective Rearview Mirror released in 2005 on Dorn's own label Hyena Records. In 2006, Dorn reflected on working with McLean:
Of the more than 200 studio albums I've produced in the past forty plus years, there is a handful; maybe fifteen 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.
Also from the Homeless Brother album, "Wonderful Baby" was a number 1 on the AOR chart in 1975 and was later recorded by Fred Astaire. The song had been inspired by Joel Dorn's son and reflected McLean's interest in 1930s music.
1977 saw a brief liaison with Arista Records that yielded the Prime Time album and, in October 1978, the single "It Doesn't Matter Anymore". This was a track from the Chain Lightning album that should have been the second of four with Arista. McLean had started recording in Nashville, with Elvis Presley's backing singers, The Jordanaires, and many of Elvis'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 USA, but through continuing deals the Chain Lightning album was released by EMI in Europe and by Festival Records in Australia. In April 1980, the track "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 Holland first, followed by the UK and then Australia.
McLean's number 1 successes in Europe and Australia led to a new deal in the USA with Millennium Records. They issued the Chain Lightning album 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 while "Crying" climbed to number 5 on the pop singles chart.
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), "You Can't Blame the Train" (US country No. 49), and "Eventually". The latter two songs were written by Houston native Terri Sharp.
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 was available for purchase at his North American concert performances and is available on his website.
Other songs 
McLean's other well-known songs include:"And I Love You So" was covered by Elvis Presley, Helen Reddy, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campbell, Engelbert Humperdinck, Howard Keel 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 covered by NOFX on their album titled 45 or 46 Songs That Weren't Good Enough to Go on Our Other Records, and also appears on the Fat Wreck Chords compilation Survival of the Fattest. "Vincent" 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 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 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 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.
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 written about McLean after she, also a singer/songwriter, saw him singing his composition "Empty Chairs" in concert. According to her, afterwards, 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", recorded by Roberta Flack (and later covered by The Fugees). However, this claim is disputed, notably by Fox.
McLean's 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.
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.
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 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 Don McLean called "American Troubadour" produced by 4-time Emmy Award winning film maker Jim Brown.
Personal life 
Don McLean lives in Camden, Maine, with his wife Patrisha McLean, and their two children, Jackie and Wyatt.