3rd September 2021
American Pie is undoubtedly Don McLean’s most recognized song. The epic 1970’s tale of the demise of an era that charts the ideals of the optimistic 1950s through into the darker 1960s resonated with the Baby Boomer audience and ensured the song reached #1 or #2 in nearly every country around the world. In Britain the American Pie album remained amongst the top charting albums for an astounding 54 weeks.
But there is more to Don McLean than the song and album American Pie as you will see. Born in 1945 at the end of WWII, Don was always a music lover and bought his first guitar from money saved from his paper round as a teenager and taught himself to play. Having always been a fan of his singing voice, I wasn’t surprised to find out that he had taken opera lessons in his early years. This not only helped with his future music career, but also helped him overcome his battle with asthma.
He played the New York coffee bar circuit of the sixties while studying for his BA degree and although he was offered a scholarship for the Columbia University Graduate School, he turned it down to become the resident singer at New York’s Caffé Lena.
His self-funded his first album, ‘Tapestry’ (1970) contained the song that people will always associate with Perry Como, ‘And I Love Her So’. His songs and style of music fitted into the introspective mood of the early ‘70s while still being rooted in the ‘60s coffee-house folk ethic, and the album received moderate success.
His rise to international stardom began in 1971 with the album ‘American Pie’. I’ll discuss the album and its main single in more detail later, but my chosen opening track is another of his hits, Vincent.
The decision to craft a song about the misunderstood genius artist Vincent Van Gogh was inspirational and bound to be a hit. The post-hippy era was overflowing with block mounted art posters, and sunflowers and starry nights adorned thousands of walls. Most everybody knew of Vincent’s sad life and for the ‘awake’ youth he was one of the cool artists to know about. All that was needed were the right words and melody to ensure a hit. Don McLean provided both.
The American Pie album propelled Don McLean to international stardom and he quickly became a major concert attraction. Although he only had two albums of original songs to draw on, his years playing the circuit gave him a wide catalogue of crowd favourites to supplement them. His first Albert Hall concert was a sell-out as were subsequent concerts around the world.
With the success of American Pie, United Artists reissued his first album ‘Tapestry’, and his famous songs ‘And I Love You So’ and ‘Castles in the Air’. The third album, simply titled ‘Don McLean’ (1973), didn’t live up to the success of American Pie, and apart from the song ‘The Pride Parade’ and one of my personal favourites, ‘Dreidel’, has been pretty much forgotten.
Of the album, Don McLean told Melody Maker “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 feel-good fourth album, ‘Playin Favourites’, returned Don McLean to the UK Singles Chart with his brilliant cover of Buddy Holly’s classic ‘Everyday’. 1978 saw the album ‘Chain Lightning’, featuring backup singers, The Jordanaires, and some of Elvis Presley’s former musicians.
He hit the #1 spot with yet another cover version, this time with Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’. Here’s the second song in today’s mix, ‘Everyday’. It is a bit of a strange coincidence that he had huge hits with songs about, and by, Buddy Holly.
Don McLean may have faded from the charts in the mid-80s but this doesn’t mean he faded into obscurity. There have been a slew of compilations, collections and Tributes since, and even an obligatory Christmas album, a Country album and a kid’s album. 1995’s ‘River of Love’ was his first release of original songs in eight years, and fans had to wait yet another fourteen years for the next collection ‘Addicted to Black’. The final original set was released in 2017 as ‘Botanical Gardens’.
I am a Don McLean fan, but kind of lost interest in him when he started to rely on reworkings of his earlier hits and covers of other artists. I was dismayed when Madonna released her emotionless and extremely bland version of American Pie in 2000. I have never been a ‘Madge’ fan, considering her to be style over substance, and this travesty of a cover raised the hackles of my musical neck.
To explain my annoyance I’d like to explain a little about the importance of the song American Pie at the time it was released. It was an extremely personal song for Don McLean. These were the years that he made his transition from the innocence of childhood into the dark reality of his father’s death and that of everyone’s favourite Rock and Roll star, Buddy Holly. The assassination of JFK in 1963 was a landmark tragedy that was seen as the beginning of the end for America. The song American Pie encompassed these feelings of change, not only to Americans, but all around the world; Hence its success. The title single has gone on to be voted 5th in a poll for the ‘Songs of the Century’ and after decades of popularity, the song was entered into the National Recording Registry in 2017.
Don, however, must have been thrilled at Madonna’s success with his signature song. It prompted EMI to release (yet another) ‘Best of Don McLean’ collection which gave him his first Top 30 chart entry in 20 years.
McLean’s views in the interview he gave regarding Madonna’s cover brought out my inner-cynic (see underlined). “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.” Oh, C’mon Don – the song’s not about Madonna and never was!
Whatever my feelings I can’t deny that Don McLean never abandoned his aesthetic for crafting beautiful songs, including some timeless classics. He has collected a fair body of work over his five decades in the music industry, but will always be known for his unexpected chart-topper, ‘American Pie’.
Catch you soon.
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Words © Andrew Knapp 2021