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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 was a busy year touring North America and Australia and in 2015 Don broke his European tour record for number of concerts in one year. 2017 will see the release of Don’s latest album and further USA and overseas touring.
Don lives in Maine on a 300-acre estate and has two grown-up children – Jackie and Wyatt – by his second wife Patrisha.
Revised: January 2017
Update: Jackie and Shawn are expecting their first child in March 2014
Don’s daughter, Jackie, married Shawn Strack on June 30th 2013 in Camden, ME. Full coverage in the New York Times:
Don told us recently that “my daughter has just written a novel and she’s also written a play and she’s a wonderful singer and she’s got a very nice fiancé that we like very much. He’s a teacher and my daughter is doing substitute teaching and she’s very happy, she’s got a wonderful little dog. And so we’re very happy for her and she’s happy and we take it one day at a time and we’ll see what happens but we like her fiancé a lot and we’re going to have her wedding here, June 30th . There are so many partners that she could have chosen which I wouldn’t have liked because it’s very easy for that to happen and she chose somebody I like quite a bit. He’s very sincere and hard working with a good job.”
Don McLean was presented with his BBC lifetime achievement award on February 8th in a show broadcast live on British TV and worldwide via BBC radio. Don performed two songs – “And I Love You So” and “Homeless Brother” – which drew a major reaction and for a while Don was ‘trending’ on Twitter!
Don said: “The UK audience has been among the most loyal for over 40 years and without them certainly I wouldn’t be considered for this honour, so I thank the BBC and I thank the British public.”
Earlier in the evening Don was interviewed and performed live versions of Castles in the Air and Everyday on the Simon Mayo Drivetime show on radio 2.
Don McLean is accompanied by four top Nashville musicians:
Tony Migliore (keyboards, piano)
Tony’s education in music includes studying at the Julliard School of Music, Eastman School of Music, along with graduate studies in performance and arranging at both North Texas State and Columbia University. Tony also served as a pianist and arranger for the United States Military Academy Band at West Point.
As a musician, producer, arranger, and conductor in Nashville, Tony has worked with many great performers such as Don McLean, KD Lang, Chet Atkins, and Mickey Gilley. Tony has conducted many major orchestras including the National Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, Honolulu Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, along with show orchestras at the MGM Grand, Aladdin, Harrah’s and Sand’s in Las Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City, and the the Tonight Show Band.
About Don, Tony says:
“Having been a studio musician for many years, I have worked with many singers of varying degrees of talent, some famous, some not. I have found that few have respect for other singers. But Don has earned the respect of his peers. Years ago I performed with the legendary Chet Atkins, genius of the guitar, and one who recognizes true musical talent. In every one of his performances, Chet would play a haunting version of ‘Vincent.’ He told me that Don McLean is a song-writing genius and a ‘singer’s singer.’”
Jerry Kroon (drums)
Jerry is a Nashville legend has worked on nearly 200 albums in total. About working with Don, Jerry says: “Don is one of the finest singers I have known. His voice is truly his instrument of communication. Long after most singers from the 1970s have lost the spark and passion for singing and, frankly, the ability to sing, Don has taken his singing to a higher level. His song-writing is amazing. He paints pictures with his lyrics and his voice.”
David Smith (bass guitar)
David Smith has been a recording musician in Nashville since 1975. He has played many types of music including country, pop, jazz and gospel and has recorded with such artists as Alabama, Billy Currington, Easton Corbin, George Jones, Gene Watson, Bill Gaither, Loretta Lynn, Buddy Emmons and many others.
David played on many syndicated television shows such as Country’s Family Reunion, Bill Gaither Homecoming series, That Good Ol Nashville Music, CMA Award show and many more…
David joined the band in August 2011 and says: “I am very excited to be working with Don McLean. I have always loved his singing and writing. To work with Don is truly an honor and a highlight in my career. I have also worked with Jerry and Tony in the studio for many years now, and have a great admiration for their work and talents.”
David is currently ill and therefore Bob Wray is currently appearing with the band.
Vip Vipperman (guitar)
Vip Vipperman has been an award winning songwriter, publisher, recording musician and producer in Nashville since 1977.
As a guitarist, Vip has recorded in the studio or on television with a host of country, pop, and jazz artists – including 25 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been staff guitarist on The NBC Series ‘The Nashville Palace’, ‘The Hee Haw Show’, ‘The Colgate Country Showdown’, now called ‘The Texaco Country Showdown’, ‘Country Gold’, The American Arthritis Foundation Telethon’ as well as many others. Vip also co-wrote the themes for ‘The Hee Haw Show’, ‘The Colgate Country Showdown’, and ‘The Texaco Country Showdown’ with the shows’ music director Charlie McCoy.
As a songwriter, Vip has had #1 songs on the Country Music Chart, the Texas Music Chart, The Gospel Music Chart, and on the CMT Video Chart. He wrote the first hit songs for both Randy Travis and Trace Adkins – who has recorded 5 of Vip’s songs. George Jones, Reba McEntire, Charley Pride, Connie Smith, Emmylou Harris and LeAnn Rimes are among the many other artists who have recorded Vip’s songs. Garth Brooks currently performs a Vip song in his Live in Vegas show. Vip has had songs in several movies as well as 25 television series including Weeds, Days of Our Lives and The World’s Dumbest Criminals.
“I have had the pleasure of working with some of the finest musical talents on the planet, but I have to say that Don McLean is in a class by himself. I am constantly amazed when playing with him. He is a superb guitarist, one of the best true vocalists working today, and his catalog of songs is unbelievable. Plus, his onstage ability to reach and move his audience is unparalleled. Don is the real deal, a true ‘Artist’. It is an honor and privilege to make music with him.”
Don McLean’s American Pie was selected as one of the five greatest songs of the 20th century in a poll by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America. The other four songs were This Land is Your Land, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Respect, and White Christmas.
American Pie was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003.
Don McLean was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2004.
The following Don McLean songs have each been played over three million times on American radio: American Pie, And I Love You So, Vincent, and Castles in the Air.
Don McLean attended the Founders Dinner at the Clinton White House on New Years Eve, 1999. He then performed at the Concert for the Millennium, produced by Quincy Jones. The dinner and the concert honored people who had influenced the 20th century.
Don McLean won the folk-singing contest at the 1964 Worlds Fair in New York.
In 1968 Don McLean earned a BA degree from Iona College with a major in finance and a minor in philosophy.
In 2001 McLean received an honorary doctorate from Iona College.
Don McLean always sings American Pie in concert, despite press accounts to the contrary.
An urban legend claims that American Pie was the name of Buddy Holly’s plane. It is not true. Buddy Holly did not own a plane.
The song Tapestry inspired the creation of the environmental action group Greenpeace.
Don McLean’s song Babylon is the theme song for the German Green Party.
A bronze plaque containing the poem So Long Hopalong Cassidy, from the original American Pie album, hangs in the hospital where William Boyd, the star of Hopalong Cassidy, died in 1972.
Johnny Cash wrote I Wish I Could Yodel after hearing Don sing Lovesick Blues in Cash’s home.
Because of McLean’s song The Legend of Andrew McCrew, radio station WGN in Chicago raised money for a headstone for the mummified hobo featured in the song.
Don McLean’s And I Love You So is the last song on Elvis in Concert, the last album Elvis Presley recorded.
Don McLean’s hit record Crying features Elvis band and back-up singers, the Jordanaires.
The song Jerusalem was composed for that city at the request of its mayor.
George Michael sang McLean’s anti-war song The Grave in protest of Americas invasion of Iraq, in March of 2003.
Artists as diverse as: Madonna, Fred Astaire, Chet Atkins, Weird Al Yankovic, Elvis Presley, Josh Groban, Perry Como, and Coolio have performed McLean’s songs.
According to the movie Tupac, the Resurrection, Tupac Shakur was influenced by Don McLean, and his favorite song was Vincent.
Mike Mills of REM says the album Don McLean is one of his all-time favorites.
Don McLean is a skilled western horseman. He owns and trained three Appaloosa horses.
Don McLean has 50 pairs of custom-made western boots, and he wears only Levi 501 button-fly jeans.
In the year 2000 the Martin Guitar Company created a limited edition signature Don McLean guitar, the D-40DM.
Don McLean was the first American artist to perform at the Sydney Opera House.
Don McLean was the guest artist at the Boston Pops Fourth of July celebration in 2000, the first of the century.
Garth Brooks introduced Don McLean as my idol to over 1,000,000 New Yorkers at a 1997 concert in Central Park. And the musicians sang American Pie together.
Don McLean was the first songwriter to have No. 1 singles in two separate centuries.
David New, a British fan, has a picture of Don McLean tattooed in color across his entire back. He was the first fan to do this in 1978.
The Don McLean Foundation sends students, who cannot otherwise afford it, to college and contributes to homeless shelters and food banks in the state of Maine.
Pete Seeger was responsible for promoting the project to build and launch a boat that would sail along the Hudson River, and, at every port of call, disseminate information about the environment and the perilous state of the Hudson River. Don McLean was a member of the first Clearwater Sloop crew in 1969.
McLean says: “This boat is an example of the Seeger genius because it combines the fun of boating with the seriousness of environmental degradation and gets everyone involved at the same time while also being a public relations dream.”
McLean’s work as the Hudson River Troubadour in 1968 and his experiences with the Clearwater Sloop in 1969 proved inspirational learning experiences for him.
He is particularly proud of a song that he wrote aboard the Sloop, called “Tapestry.” Its powerful lyrics are as relevant today as when he first wrote them. They provide a warning of the consequences of humanity’s exploitation of the environment. “If man is allowed to destroy all they need. He will soon have to pay with his life, for his greed.”
Despite its powerful message, the song is one of Don’ lesser known compositions, overshadowed on the Tapestry album by the giants, “Castles in the Air” and “And I Love You So.”
Don McLean has never seen himself as any type of ‘environmental activist’ and has avoided becoming a spokesperson for the environmental movement. He says, “Political people bore me, and I don’t want to be one. I’ll settle for being a decent citizen.”
After the first Clearwater Sloop voyage in 1969, McLean left the crew. Before he left, Pete Seeger told him, “Don, I think you’re a genius. You’re like a wonderful chef who serves a great meal once and never repeats it.” Don returned from time to time to perform at Sloop concerts. He also recorded a version of “Tapestry” for the 1974 Clearwater album and edited a book entitled Songs and Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew, with sketches by his friend Thomas Allen.
Later, in 1984, McLean played Carnegie Hall with the Jordanaires for a Greenpeace benefit. After the show, David McTaggart, the Canadian co-founder of Greenpeace, came backstage and told Don that his song, “Tapestry,” was one of the factors that got him involved in the environmental movement.
Adapted from The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs by Alan Howard
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