Elfstrom approached Alan Livingston at Mediarts for funding for the Till Tomorrow project. Livingston was a legendary figure in the music industry, having been president and chief executive office of Capitol Records from 1960 until 1968. He had signed such stars as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, the Kingston Trio, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles to the Capitol label. With Bob York, from RCA Records, Livingston was attempting to make Mediarts into a high quality, boutique label. When Elfstrom approached Livingston about the Till Tomorrow film, he also sent a tape of more than forty of Don’s songs. Livingston was not interested in supporting the film, but on hearing the tape, he was anxious to sign McLean to the Mediarts label.
Livingston offered McLean a contract that ended his long struggle to secure that first record deal. Mediarts cleared up Don’s $20,000 debt with the studio and gave him a favorable publishing arrangement with Livingston’s Mayday Music. McLean had been unhappy with the way management was always pushing him to “do the album and then get the deal.” And Don was delighted to be associated with a record producer who had worked with Frank Sinatra.
Following the agreement, Mediarts took an active interest in the songs that would appear on the [Tapestry] album and those that would make good singles. They added songs McLean had written around the time of the Hudson River Troubadour project, such as: “And I Love You So,” “Bad Girl,” and “Castles in the Air.” Songs, such as “The Wrong Thing To Do” and “I Want Her,” were recorded but were not used on this album.
McLean was experimenting with a form of lyric writing, and the album evolved as he wanted. He wrote ten different songs in ten different styles and made them fit together around a general theme. Each song told an American tale, creating characters that allowed the listener to understand the story, but each song also allowed the listener to use his own imagination to see other aspects of the story. He did this in “Magdalene Lane,” a song he wrote after a trip to California in 1969, when he attended the auction of MGM film artifacts:
MGM Studios can’t make the nut,
They’re auctioning Dorothy’s shoes.
Gable is gone, the Good Witch is a slut
And I’ve got the parking lot blues.
“Magdalene Lane” was the beginning of McLean’s attempt to do a song like “American Pie.” “General Store” is based on a real life incident that happened in Cold Spring, New York. “Three Flights Up” is a song that Don considers to be one of his most ambitious. “It’s almost like a French movie, a little bit maudlin and over-done, but I like the concept. It would make a nice video.”
Musically, the album is diverse. On “General Store,” McLean used only his voice and his guitar. He sang “Magdalene Lane” with a group. “And I Love You So” has a full string orchestra, a mixture of synthesized and real strings, arranged by Edward Bogas. Strings are also used on “Bad Girl,” “No Reason for your Dreams,” and “Castles in the Air.” Don used two Martin guitars on this album, an 00-21 and a D-28. He later used his 00-21 on “Vincent,” and his D-28 on “American Pie.” He gave his 00-21 Martin guitar to the son of the captain of the Clearwater Sloop, who calls now and then to ask if Don wants it back.
Tapestry was released in April, 1970, and received excellent reviews. In The New York Times of February 28, 1971, Don Heckman wrote:
“Don McLean’s record has been in the stores for a couple of months now and hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it deserves. One of the problems is that his folk-based songs make few concessions to commercial topicality – to plastic country rhythms or queasy electronics. He is, quite simply, a contemporary troubadour, and one who, despite his relative anonymity, can produce music which is easily comparable to the best of such current heavies as James Taylor, Neil Young, and Elton John.
McLean is still a few songs from the consistency that will keep him around long enough for his music to sink into the public’s consciousness, but at least four or five of the songs included here – especially ‘Castles in the Air,’ ‘Magdalene Lane,’ ‘Three Flights Up,’ ‘Circus Song,’ and ‘And I Love You So’ – are nearly perfect marriages of music, lyrics, and ideas. ‘And I Love You So,” if perhaps a bit too sweet for some tastes, strikes me as the kind of simple, uncluttered love song that opens the heart and renews the spirit.
My criticisms are simple enough: McLean tends to stuff his songs too full of demanding ideas and colorful imagery. His problem at the moment is finding an appropriate editorial funnel for his cornucopiac imagination (would that more songwriters had the same problem!) His singing is gentle, folky, a bit reminiscent at times of the sound that Peter Yarrow gets when he is sounding particularly good and on the verge of becoming a genuinely personal expression. His guitar playing is excellent, and the instrumental backgrounds of Edward Bogas are just right.
Obviously, I like Don McLean’s music. I doubt that anyone will find all of his tunes to their taste, but, as I said, there are a few pieces here that shouldn’t be overlooked. Don’t let this one pass you by.”
From the beginning, McLean was surprised at the positive critical reviews he received for his song writing and performing. Lee Hays of the Weavers, who wrote liner notes for Tapestry, immediately understood the fusion nature of his music:
“If the lore of our culture helps keep the past alive, then it makes Don’s present life and art more solid. One wishes that more young singers would be more radical – that is, to find and to cling to their roots. And if they can’t find any, grow some.”
Extract from The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs by Alan Howard Copyright 2007 Starry Night Music, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction or translation of any part of this work without the permission of the copyright owner is unlawful. Used by permission