About Don McLean

A Short Biography

Don McLean was born on October 2nd 1945 in New Rochelle, NY to Elizabeth and Donald McLean. By the age of five he had developed an interest in all forms of music and would spend hours listening to the radio and his father’s records. Childhood asthma meant that Don missed long periods of school and while he slipped back in his studies, his love of music was allowed to flourish. He would often perform shows for family and friends.

As a teenager, he purchased his first guitar (a Harmony F Hole with a sunburst finish) from the House of Music in New Rochelle and took opera lessons paid for by his sister. These lessons combined with many hours in the swimming pool, helped Don to develop breath control, which would later allow him to sing long, continuous phrases, in songs such as “Crying”, without taking a breath. The exercise also meant his asthma improved.

In 1961, Don took his only vacation with his father – a trip to Washington D.C. Sadly, a few months later his father died. Don was just 15 years old.

Don McLean with parents

Don McLean with parents

By this time, Don’s musical focus was on folk thanks, in part, to The Weavers landmark 1955 recording “Live at Carnegie Hall”. Don was determined to become a professional musician and singer and, as a 16 year old, he was already making contacts in the business. After managing to get his home number from the telephone directory, Don phoned Erik Darling. They become friends and Don visited his apartment in New York.
Don McLean in 1963

Don McLean in 1963

Through Erik Darling, Don recorded his first studio sessions with Lisa Kindred and was invited to join a group with Darling and the other members of the Rooftop Singers. However, even at that time, Don saw himself as a troubadour and turned down the offer.

While at Villanova University in 1963 (he stayed for just four months), Don met and became friends with Jim Croce and President Kennedy was assassinated. After leaving Villanova, Don worked his ‘apprenticeship’ for “Harold Leventhal Management”. This started a six year period during which time Don performed at venues like the Bitter End and Gaslight Café in New York, the Newport Folk Festival, the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., the Main Point in Philadelphia, the Troubadour and Ash Grove in Los Angeles and over forty colleges throughout New York and New England. He appeared alongside artists like Herbie Mann, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry, Melanie, Steppenwolf, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Janis Ian, Josh White, Ten Wheel Drive and others.

Don also found time to attend night school at Iona College and, in 1968, graduated with a Bachelors degree in Business Administration but turned down a prestigious scholarship to Columbia University Graduate School in favour of becoming resident singer at Caffe Lena in NY.

Don McLean at Caffè Lena. Photo: Joseph Deuel

Don McLean at Caffè Lena. Photo: Joseph Deuel

While resident at Caffe Lena, the New York State Council for the Arts invited Don to become their Hudson River Troubadour. He accepted and spent the summer travelling from town to town in the Hudson Valley, giving talks about the environment and singing songs for whoever would turn up to listen.

A year later, Don was a member of the first crew of the Sloop Clearwater. With Pete Seeger, they travelled the Atlantic seaboard giving concerts at each port and featuring in the news wherever they went.

In 1969, Don recorded his first album, “Tapestry”, in Berkeley, CA. The student riots were going on outside the studio door as Don was singing “And I Love You So” inside. The album was first released by Mediarts and attracted good reviews and achieved some commercial success.

Tapestry

Tapestry

The transition to international stardom began in 1971 with the release of “American Pie”. “American Pie” was recorded on 26th May 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, the famous New York concert hall.

Thirty years later, “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.

The top five were:

“Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland

“White Christmas” by Bing Crosby

“This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie

“Respect” by Aretha Franklin;

and “American Pie” by Don McLean.

“American Pie” was issued as a double A-side single in November 1971 and charted within a month. Interest from the media and public sent the single to #1 in the USA and Don to international superstardom. Every line of the song was analysed time and time again to find the real meaning. Don refused to sanction any of the many interpretations, so adding to its mystery.

The second single, “Vincent”, charted on 18th March 1972 going on to reach US#12, UK#1. The “American Pie” album remained at #1 in the UK for 7 weeks in 1972, and in the UK charts for 53 consecutive weeks. In the wake of “American Pie”, Don became a major concert attraction and was able to call upon material not only from  his two albums but from a repertoire of old concert hall numbers and the complete 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 60s paid off with well-paced performances. Don’s first concert at the Albert Hall in 1972 was a triumphant success. Concert footage and other video clips played to McLean songs formed the award winning 1972 film “Till Tomorrow” produced by Bob Elfstrom (a project they had started working on in 1968).

With all this success, “Tapestry” was reissued by United Artists and charted in the USA on 12th February 1972 reaching #111 and the top-15 in the United Kingdom; it includes two of  Don’s most famous songs: “And I Love You So” and “Castles in the Air”.

Don’s third album, simply entitled “Don McLean”, included the song “The Pride Parade” that provides an insight into Don’s immediate reaction to stardom. Don 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”.

The fourth album, “Playin Favourites” became a top-40 hit in the UK in 1973 and included the classic, “Mountains of Mourne” and Buddy Holly’s “Everyday”, a live rendition of which returned Don to the UK singles chart. McLean said, “The last album (“Don McLean”) was a study in depression whereas the new one (“Playin Favourites”) is almost the quintessence of optimism, with a feeling of “Wow, I just woke up from a bad dream”.

1973 was another great year for Don McLean the songwriter and Don McLean the performer. Perry Como recorded “And I Love You So” from the “Tapestry” album and took it to the UK top-5 and American top-30. Como’s version was nominated for a Grammy but was beaten by “Killing Me Softly With His Song” sung by Roberta Flack and written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox apparently after Lori Leiberman had attended a McLean concert at the LA Troubadour.

At Hyde Park, London in 1975

At Hyde Park, London in 1975

Throughout the 1970s, Don McLean remained an in-demand concert performer. In 1975, 85000 fans attended his London Hyde Park concert. 1977, saw a brief liaison with Arista Records that yielded the “Prime Time” album before, in 1978, Don’s career began again in Nashville where he would work with Elvis Presley’s backing singers, “The Jordanaires” and many of Elvis’s old musicians. The result was “Chain Lightning” and the UK No 1, “Crying”. The early 1980s saw further chart successes 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” (top-10 in Australia), “Can’t Blame the Wreck on the Train” (US country #49) and “Eventually” written by Terri Sharp.

Four years later, Don hit the UK top-10 with “American Pie” prompting many appearances on radio and TV including a one-hour special with Nicky Campbell on BBC radio 1, and the recording of the Manchester concert for video release in 1993. A favourite memory for many fans is Don performing “American Pie” live on “Top of the Pops” in 1991.

In 1992, many previously unreleased songs became available on “Favorites and Rarities” while “Don McLean Classics” featured new studio recordings of “Vincent” and “American Pie”. In 1994, Don appeared at the Buddy Holly tributes in the USA and London, and “Guns and Roses” took a replica of Don’s version of “Since I Don’t Have You” (a US top-20 hit for Don in April 1981) to the UK top-10. 1995 and “American Pie’ returns to the top-40; this time in “techno-music” format performed by European artist, Just Luis.In 1996, “Killing Me Softly With His Song”‘, performed by The Fugees, was one of the biggest selling singles of the year.

Don McLean credits his 1997 performance of “American Pie” at Garth Brooks’ Central Park concert (attended by over 500,000 people) as the beginning of his third career comeback. According to Don, his first “comeback” had been the release of “Vincent” and the second, the North American release and massive success of “Crying”. “Brooks was joined on stage by two surprise guest stars, Billy Joel and Don McLean, who brought down the house with an acoustic rendition of “American Pie.” (CNN, 1997)

Two years later Garth Brooks repaid the favour by appearing as a special guest (with Nanci Griffith) on Don’s first ever American TV special, broadcast on PBS and now available as the “Starry Starry Night” video, DVD and CD. A month later, Don McLean wound up the 20th century by performing “American Pie” for President Clinton at the Lincoln Memorial Gala In Washington D.C.

In 2000, Madonna recorded a cover version of “American Pie” that on release in the UK entered the official singles chart at number 1 and made the US top-30 on air play points alone. This prompted EMI to release a new “Best of Don McLean” CD that gave Don his first top-30 album chart entry in almost 20 years.

McLean said: “Madonna is a colossus in the music industry and she is going to be considered an important historical figure as well. She is a fine singer, a fine songwriter and record producer, and she has the power to guarantee success with any song she chooses to record. It is a gift for her to have recorded ‘American Pie.’ I have heard her version and I think it is sensual and mystical. I also feel that she’s chosen autobiographical verses that reflect her career and personal history. I hope it will cause people to ask what’s happening to music in America. I have received many gifts from God but this is the first time I have ever received a gift from a goddess.”

Even more surprising than Madonna having a hit with a Don McLean song, was George Michael’s decision in 2003 to record “The Grave”, from the “American Pie” album, as a protest
against the Iraq war. He recorded the song for MTV and performed it live on Top of the Pops.

Don said: “I am proud of George Michael for standing up for life and sanity. I am delighted that he chose a song of mine to express these feelings. We must remember that the Wizard
is really a cowardly old man hiding behind a curtain with a loud microphone. It takes courage and a song to pull the curtain open and expose him. Good Luck George.”

With Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald

With Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald

The 21st Century has seen a number of new honours for Don McLean and his music. Iona College conferred an honorary doctorate on Don in 2001 and, in February 2002, “American Pie” was finally inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2004 Don McLean was inaugurated into the National Academy of Popular Music Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and in 2007 he shared his life story in Alan Howard’s biography.

Don McLean continues to tour the world and release new material. In 2009 his latest studio album, “Addicted to Black”, was released and in 2010 he returned to Europe for a seven nation tour, including the Royal Albert Hall, London on May 7th.

2011 saw another tour of UK and Ireland, including a sensational appearance at Europe’s largest music festival, Glastonbury and in 2012 Don completed his longest European Tour  in 20 years. In 2012 Don was also awarded the BBC Folk Music Lifetime Achievement Award and performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. A busy year also saw the release of “American Troubadour” on CD and DVD and the worldwide broadcast of the documentary of this name, charting Don’s life and career.

2013 is a busy year touring North America and Australia. Don has no plans to ease up on touring and talks are in progress for new album releases. He lives in Maine on a 300-acre estate with his wife Patrisha and his two children.

Alan Howard

Revised: August 2013

Comments

  1. John W Kerr says:

    “Cool I thought from my own little piece of reality that he’d fallen of the face of the earth. I guess my wife is right I am self centered. My favorites Vincent because I’m an artist Castles in the Air, because I’m a romantic, And American because its so many things rolled into one.”

  2. Linda Kay Harman-Hunter says:

    DonMcLean when my son was an infant. wonderful music and singing still today in 2011!

  3. Lynda Achille says:

    Saw the BBC coverage of Don McLean singng Vincent… my all time favourite and American Pie……brilliant took me back to the seventies.

  4. Patricia Aronin says:

    I’m a huge McLean fan and for me it was Vincent – always Vincent. I remember playing it over and over as a kid and crying over the beauty of that song. McLean made it sound so easy to write and sing something magnificent.

  5. David Reyes says:

    “I love his music,”

  6. Angelica Rose Goerlich says:

    I might have only knowed aboud McLean for a littel bu twhen I first herd american pie I fell in love.

  7. Ralph Pettorossi says:

    “I had the pleasure of seeing Don twice in very small venues, Poughkeepsie (NY)High School’s auditorium and at Mt. St. Mary’s Theater (Newburgh NY). Just him, his guitar and banjo, with John Platania off to the side of the stage on bass. Pure magic.”

  8. Sheila Russell says:

    “I have been a fan of yours for years Don , for me it was Chainlightning.x.”

  9. Gaylen Nix says:

    My wife and I sawl/heard him in Charleston WV in early 2008. We enjoyed him very much.

  10. Vickie Lynn Fisher says:

    “Don McLean has the finest voice on the planet- is a decent gentleman artist who is earthy, God-respecting, concious of helping others suceed. This remarkable humble man is going to be treated extremely well historically as one of the 20th Centuries finest visionary progressive artists.”

  11. Winter Shanck says:

    “McLean’s version of “”Castles in the Air”” from the Hudson River Sloop Concert (1969) with Pete Seeger is amazing.”

  12. Nancy Ford Smith says:

    true artist to the core….one of a kind.

  13. Melanie Simms says:

    My favorite is Vincent also; I got the chance to meet him in person in Carlisle Pa some years ago — and wow can he still sing! He’s also got the most amazing eyes you will ever see on a man… the eyes really are the windows to the soul!

  14. Judy Celania Stice says:

    love Empty Chairs.So haunting.

  15. “My first guitar was a harmony sunburst f-hole cool! He was on Macy’s parade this morning, but happened to miss it.”

  16. Alice Gibson says:

    “He is an amazing artist and I have been a fan for years. Thank the Lord for giving us Don Mclean. We are all better for listening to his soul and heart, what a wonderful person he is!”

  17. Becky Wilson says:

    “Don- Thinking about about you today on Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday and the lovely song you wrote about him years ago. I was able to see you perform it at the University of MO in about 1973. Wonderful then, wonderful now.”

  18. Alan Wolverton says:

    “Don, your my favorite singer of all times.”

  19. Neils Aquino says:

    “The one and only don mclean as he performed “”And I Love You So”””

  20. Ann Sheridan says:

    “I was lucky enough to live in Ireland during some of Don McLeans visits there. At the time we did not have a Concert hall but he performed in a Boxing Statium – which was small and atmospheric and probably so much better than a bigger venue. Everytime I saw him he got better and better to this day I have his albums, tapes and cds. A true Musician!”

  21. Dave Quinn says:

    The photo above that says “With Stevie Wonder and Kenny Rogers” is incorrect. That is not Kenny Rogers. It looks more like Michael MacDonald, but definitely NOT Kenny Rogers

  22. David Moore says:

    You may wish to correct the caption. That’s Michael McDonald and not Kenny Rogers.

  23. Stevi Stephens says:

    Today is International Peace Day and the CBC has just played Blowing in the Wind. I first heard this in the summer of 63 or 64. It was played by a folk singer whom a friend had met in a club in Washington DC. He was to drive her to Ft. Lauderdale from the U. of F. She called him -Donny – and asked me to keep him company while she got organized. He was truly mesmorizing and a true gentle man. I’ve always wondered if Donny was Don McLean and never hear Blowing in the Wind or anything by Don McLean without remembering that day. The singer had a much better voice than Bob Dylan, better looking, too.

  24. Vale Tommy Wells. Tommy Wells the legendary Nashville Studio drummer who played on most of Don’s latter Cd’s passed away suddenly yesterday. I’m sure the entire Don McLean fan community sends their heartfelt condolences to his family and the wider music community in Nashville.

  25. I am and always a big fan of Don Maclean ever since i learned to strum my guitar when i was sixteen..i have been a singer with guitar accompaniment when i turned eighteen…and up to present, i still enjoy playing a cover for American Pie, If we try, And i love you So, Birthday Song and the most popular request which is Vincent…..
    I would like to thanks the great talent of Don Maclean for creating such beautiful music that has ran so many decades and still appealing to all sorts of audience…Long live Don Maclean!
    How i wish i could sing with you one day in one of your concerts in the future here in UK…

  26. Zhenyu Zou says:

    as a chinese,i love the song ‘vicent’ and ‘American pie’ from the deep of my heart.you got all my respect, Don Mclean.

  27. Herbie Blackfoot says:

    STRANGE BUT TRUE:-”While Don McLean was in America, battling for fame and deservedly, accumulated awards for his tremendous talents,I, on the other hand, (also a songwriter from the same era), but in South Africa, still battles for recognition. You may wonder why I still carry on? It’s simple,I possess the same passion like all songwriters and I love it! View “LOVE” by Herbie Blackfoot on You Tube. God bless. H.B.

  28. Sue LOVERIDGE says:

    I have been a fan forever. I have been to many concerts. I remember one outside in 72 or 73 in Baltimore MD. I had front seats for one concert at the Lyric in Baltimore city. Greatest concert ever!
    But. . . . For my 6oth birthday, October 6 (I am also a Libra), my sweet sister got me tickets for a Don McClean concert in York PA. So happy! Can’t wait! Very excited!

  29. He steel does it to me.
    More then 35 years gone by since i had a crush on him. (even managed to go to a performance in a kibbutz -in Israel- that i spent all my money on )
    ,and now this singer helps me on fry day mornings cleaning the house feeling like a teenager in-love and singing loudly the wards .
    oh , how i envy you for
    being able to go to his concert – enjoy for me too.

  30. 5 years into the United States and 5 years after the Ode to Billy Jo, I heard American Pie and was fascinated and wonder-full about what it meant. Vincent meant the purity of heartfelt truth and loyalty to one’s ideas and lofty beliefs, Great delight! Grace ^ Blessings
    Happy Valentine’s to the Valiant Ones who dare to love! It’s the only way to :))

  31. I was only 11 years old and living in New Rochelle, when American Pie started playing on the radio. The song quickly became one of my favorite songs and I purchased the 45. Little did I know at the time, that Don was also born and raised in New Rochelle – very proud to share that connection. Always loved some of his other less well-known songs: Dreidel and On the Amazon

  32. Butch Toumey says:

    What or who was Don singing about in American Pie?

  33. Pavel from the Czech Republic says:

    Please, what is the right pronunciation of his surname ?
    “McLane” or McLeen” ?
    Thank you.
    Pavel

  34. What is the right pronunciation of Don’s surname ?
    Mc Lane or McLeen ?
    Thank you.

  35. Kind of an oddball request: does anyone have a list of TV appearances Don made in 1975?I have a very short audio cassette recording of him singing “Wonderful Baby” on a TV show. From the items recorded on the same tape, it seems the recording was made in either June or July of 1975, perhaps on a show like “Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert”. I’d like to label the recording as accurately as possible. Any help in narrowing down the date of this performance would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  36. We had an issue last night were our marching band was forced off of the field by the football team at half during a show they’ve worked months to perfect .. .. Our band subsequently left the field in advance of game conclusion. Reminders of American Pie .. Made me wonder “what was revealed” and any advice on a response to our school? Maybe a live rendition of American Pie at halftime?

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