Don McLean

Don McLean was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2018 as his songs American Pie and Vincent were certified as having had five million and three million airplays respectively.

His father’s family were Scottish and his mother’s Italian and his early influences included Frank Sinatra, Buddy Holly and folk music, the Weavers in particular. Don began playing guitar at the age of sixteen and dropped out of university to become a performer, although he did get a bachelor’s degree in business administration. His early career progressed to him playing the Newport Jazz Festival and the Troubadour and learned the art of performing from his mentor, Pete Seeger, with whom he performed in 1969 to raise awareness for environmental pollution. Don admits: “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of Pete and how generous and supportive he was. If you could understand his politics and you got to know him, he really was some kind of modern day saint.”

By this time Don was writing songs that would appear on his debut album, Tapestry, which would be rejected by over seventy labels. It featured the emotive Castles in the Air as well as And I Love You So which became a No.1 on the Adult Contemporary Chart for Perry Como and was also covered by such artists as Elvis Presley, Helen Reddy and Glen Campbell. By the time Don’s second album, American Pie was released, his record label had been taken over by United Artists, so for the first time he had major promotion for his songs. The single American Pie, said to have been inspired by his memories of hearing the news of the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the JP Richardson, (the Big Bopper) and incorporating the developments in American youth culture, with an element of the autobiographical, presenting an abstract story of Don Mclean’s life. The song became an international hit despite being over eight and a half minutes long, necessitating the record company splitting it between A and B sides, thus it remains the longest song ever to reach No.1 in the US chart. American Pie was voted No.5 in Songs of the Century, the original manuscript selling for over one million two hundred thousand dollars in 2015, making it the third highest price ever for an American literary manuscript. In 2000 it was covered by, and a hit for, Madonna.

Don’s single Vincent, inspired by the painter Vincent Van Gogh went to No.1 in the UK and No.2 in the US. It had been covered by many artists including Josh Groban on his debut album in 2001 and Ellie Goulding in 2018. His next two album were Don Mclean and Playin’ Favourites, the latter including a version of Buddy Holly’s Everyday. In 1974 he released the album Prime Time, which included a version of It Doesn’t Matter Anymore, and in 1977 another album, Homeless Brother. In 1980 Don’s cover of Roy Orbison’s Crying went to No.1 in the Netherlands, the UK and Australia, the Big O himself praising Don’s version. There were more great singles, including Don’s version of The Skyliners’ Since I Don’t Have You and a new version of Castles in the Air and many more classic albums. Don’s song Wonderful Baby, a tribute to Fred Astaire, went to No.1 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart and was even recorded by Astaire himself. In 2003 Don’s song The Grave about the Vietnam war, was recorded by George Michael in protest at the war in Iraq. All the copies of Buddy Holly’s J-45 bear the titles of songs by Buddy and the Crickets. Only Don McLean’s has a non-Buddy song. At the special request of Maria Elena Holly, Don’s is called American Pie.

Joe Ely