Early life and career
Donald “Don” McLean was born in New Rochelle, New York in 1945. When he was younger he was already performing for his family and friends, and later took interest in folk music.
McLean got his start playing around New York City’s folk clubs during the mid-1960s. Around that time, he met legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, whom McLean derived inspiration about performing. Seeger became his friend and mentor. McLean began working with Seeger on board a sloop named Clearwater that sailed along the Hudson River to promote environmental awareness.
Following his stint with Seeger, McLean wrote songs and recorded them into what would be his first album Tapestry. McLean offered his recordings to no less than 72 labels, all of which rejected them. One label, Mediarts, took McLean in and releasedTapestry in 1970. The album didn’t sell well, although one of its tracks “And I Love You So” was covered by balladeer Perry Como. It gave him a #1 hit on the easy listening chart and a Top 40 hit as well.
“American Pie” — an epic folk ballad
The success and the popularity of “And I Love You So” prompted United Artists label to consider McLean. The imprint later released his second album American Pie in 1971. American Pie featured the sprawling, epic folk ballad “American Pie,” which was part-autobiographical and also inspired by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson. Running over eight minutes, the song “American Pie” referred to this tragedy of those rock and roll stars as “the day the music died,” which became a popular expression.
“American Pie” (the single) became a #1 hit on the both the Hot 100 and adult contemporary charts, and #2 on the UK singles chart.
American Pie‘s second single “Vincent” was McLean’s tribute to Van Gogh. It also became successful, peaking at #2 on the easy listening chart and #12 on the pop chart. It also topped the UK singles chart.
The success of these singles propelled American Pie up to the #1 position on the Billboard 200 album chart. Meanwhile, McLean’s first album Tapestry finally charted on the UK (at #72) following the success of American Pie.
Post -“American Pie” career
In 1972, McLean released his self-titled third studio album, whose first single “Dreidel” just missed the Top 20 pop.
McLean eventually decided not to record songs that would sound like “American Pie.” Despite the single’s success, he wouldn’t let it restrain his career. Artistically this was advantageous to McLean, but his label United Artists didn’t welcome such move. Not surprisingly, subsequent releases Playin’ Favorites (1973) and Homeless Brother (1974) were commercial disappointments. United Artists eventually dropped McLean from its roster. McLean moved to Arista and released Prime Time (1977) but it too fared poorly.
Following the failures of thse records, McLean spent the next few years without a label. That was until in the early 1980s when he enjoyed a brief spell of success through his album Chain Lightning, which registered at #28 on the Hot 100. Its first single was McLean’s cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” which went to #5 on the Hot 100. The second single, McLean’s rendition of the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You,” reached #12 on the pop chart.
However, McLean’s subsequent records again failed to keep up with his comeback success. He was left again without a label, and spent much of his later years on the road. He reluctantly brought “American Pie” back to his set list, as well as he put more country and rock to his repertoire as evidenced, for instance, by his albumLove Tracks (1987).
McLean has continued performing up to this day, as well as released studio recordings such as his latest album Addicted To Black (2009), which was mostly of new material.
In 2004, McLean was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.