Clearwater and Pete Seeger

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.”

clearadDespite 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.

sloopsingers

Don McLean 2nd from left with the Sloop Singers 1969

Adapted 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.

The “Killing Me Softly” Story

kill

Daily News, April 5th 1973
Most people would be able to recognise that verse right away. Anyone within earshot of a radio or a jukebox over the last few months couldn’t miss hearing roberta flack’s beautiful version of it, done with style and taste and just the right amount of world-weariness. She does it so well that any listener would think the song had been written just for her. But, oh, how wrong they would be!

The words were written by Norman Gimbel and set to music by Charles Fox, tailored specifically for the gentle unaffected voice of a young folk singer from the West Coast named Lori Leiberman. And what’s more the feelings described in it were Lori’s true feelings; the story is hers and the mood and thoughts were hers too. Even the first recording of the song was hers, though it was not until Roberta Flack cut her version that it became and international hit.

Lori was talking about it the other day. She’s happy the song has caught on, of course, but she’ll be less than human if she didn’t wish it was her version that made it so big.

The song is a strange plaintive one, a ballad in the dictionary definition of a ballad: ” a narrative composition in verse of strongly marked rythym, suitable for singing.” and I asked Lori how it came about – what or more specifically who was the inspiration for it, and her answer was so right. I wondered why I hadn’t realized it before.

“Don McLean,” she said simply. “I saw him at the Troubadour in LA last year. (“And there he was this young boy / A stranger to my eyes”) I had heard about him from some friends but up to then all I knew about him really was what others had told me. But I was moved by his performance, by the way he developed his numbers, he got right through to me. (“Strumming my pain with his fingers / Killing me softly with his sond/ Telling my whole life with his words.”)

Norman Gimbel picked up the story. “Lori is only 20 and she really is a very private person,” he said. “She told us about this strong experience she had listening to McLean” (“I felt all flushed with fever / Embarassed by the crowd / I felt he had found my letters / And read each one out loud / I prayed that he would finish / But he kept just right on…”)

“I had a notion this might make a good song so the three of us discussed it. We talked it over several times, just as we did with the rest of the numbers we wrote for the album and we all felt it ahad possibilities.”

“Norman had a phrase he liked, ‘killing me softly with his blues'”, Lori went on to explain. “But I didn’t feel the word “blues” was quite what the effect was. It wasn’t contemporary enough, somehow. We talked about it a while and finally decided on the word “song” instead. It seemed right then when we did it.”

It must have been. Capitol Records like it to so much they released it as a single as well as on the album. Billboard liked the album so much they selected Lori as their Star Awards artist.

Don McLean would like to meet her too. He didn’t know the song described him, and when asked about it, he said “I’m absolutely amazed. I’ve heard both Lori’s and Roberta’s version and I must say I’m very humbled about the whole thing. You can’t help but feel that way about a song written and performed as well as this one is.”

Lori you may have picked the wrong man. That certainly doesn’t sound like someone who’d kill you, however softly, with his song, now, does it?

The Hudson River Clearwater Sloop

 

Aboard that sloop, Don McLean wrote several new songs (including ‘Tapestry’, which featured o­n his first album and was an inspiration for the formation of Greenpeace) and edited a songbook entitled ‘Songs ands Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew’.

Since that first voyage, the Clearwater sloop has continued to make its annual journey with its crew of volunteers. The Clearwater Organisation has grown into a major environmental group that has lobbied Government and public opinion with great success.

In 2002, Pete Seeger was named a ‘Clean Water Hero’ “for promoting passage of and keeping alive the promise of the Clean Water Act, o­ne of the most successful
environmental laws in this country”.

You can learn more about the activities of Clearwater at www.clearwater.org.

 

Don McLean’s PBS TV special, 2000

pbspic“Though it wasn’t originally planned that way, DON MCLEAN: STARRY, STARRY NIGHT, a concert special filmed in Austin, Texas, turned into a tribute to o­ne of the most popular singer-songwriters in pop music history. The program, which also features superstar Garth Brooks and acclaimed singer Nanci Griffith, airs o­n PBS as part of the March 2000 pledge drive (check local listings). Surprisingly, it is McLean’s first television special – ever (Editor’s note: Nonsense. Don has had several TV specials!).

“I have done very little TV,” McLean admits. “I’m a live act, always have been. I’ve been constantly o­n tour for 30 years. But I think this is the most perfect project of mine, outside of an album orconcert, that I’ve ever done.”

Among the songs he reprises in front of 1,200 fans at Austin’s historic Paramount Theatre are some of his most popular, including “Vincent,” Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and “Castles in the Air.” Both Brooks and Griffith join him o­n the reprise of his classic “American Pie.”

Back in the summer of 1997, McLean performed at Brooks’ landmark Central Park concert; Brooks introduced him as his “idol” and had him close the show with “American Pie” (a staple
Brooks sings at his own concerts). But he also wanted to hear another McLean song, “Empty Chairs.” So he asked him to play it for him in his trailer backstage. “He recounts this story to the audience in Austin,” recalls McLean, “and all I could say was, ‘Now you’re the o­ne who’s going to sing ‘Empty Chairs.’ He did, and he did a great job o­n it, too.”

Though the concert was the first time McLean had met Austin native Nanci Griffith, they each earned their first break at the legendary Cafe Lena in Saratoga, New York. In fact, at the Austin concert, Griffith presented McLean with a photograph she had taken of the cafe’s owner, Lena Spencer. For STARRY, STARRY NIGHT, Griffith sings a pair of duets with McLean: his hit “And I Love You So” and Buddy Holly’s “Raining in My Heart.”

In addition to performances, DON MCLEAN: STARRY, STARRY NIGHT includes photo montages of McLean’s career and interview excerpts. “There’s a life-spanning feel to it,” McLean says, noting that the program is dedicated to his parents.

Says producer Terry Lickona, a veteran of AUSTIN CITY LIMITS, “After 25 years in this business, it’s a thrill for me to get to work o­n a project like this with someone I consider the quintessential American singer-songwriter. I was amazed that this is Don’s first major television special. It’s an honor to be producing such an exceptional program. My goal, as always, is to create a comfortable environment where an artist can do what he does best – sing and play to an audience of adoring fans. This show captures the ultimate Don McLean in performance – it’s a must-see for all fans of great, original American music.”

The Don McLean Story: 1970-1976

Despite the UA reissue of Tapestry the album still failed to make a major commercial impact although good reviews ensured that Don became a headline act in America’s clubs and coffee houses. The importance of the album and more importantly, the singer and writer of all the songs featured, was perhaps first highlighted by Pete Childs, who aswell as featuring as a musician o­n the album provided additional liner notes. He said: “I can’t imagine anyone listening closely to Don’s songs and failing to come away the better for it”.

Whether United Artists knew of the existence of the song American Pie when they took over Mediarts is unknown. The song was recorded o­n 26 May 1971. Initially, American Pie was edited and released as a single with Empty Chairs as the B-side. A month later, in November 1971, the song was reissued in two parts to occupy both sides of the single. The song had received its first airplay o­n June 26, 1971 o­n New York’s WNEW-FM and WPLJ-FM to mark the closing of The Fillmore East, the famous New York concert hall. Don’s first live public performance of the song had received an indifferent reaction from the audience. In those days he was an opening act working for the William Morris agency. He excitedly got some pretty young girl to come up o­n stage to hold the (many) pages of lyrics for him. The audience were stunned into silence! Little did they know that they had just heard the song that was to become arguably the most famous rock and pop song of all time.

The American Pie single charted o­n 27 November 1971, two weeks after the album. Very quickly it drew attention from the media and public alike catapulting the single to #1 in the USA and Don to instant international superstardom. Every line of the song was analysed time and time again to find the real meaning. Don has always refused to sanction any of the many interpretations o­nly adding to its mystery. The great American Pie debate continues even today o­n the internet! Don jokingly suggested recently that when he’s old and poor he’d open a pay-to-listen 0891 phone line o­n which he’d tell all! Somehow that isn’t very likely. Don has always kept the publishing rights to his songs. “So when people ask me what American Pie means, I tell them it means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.” – as the now famous 1991 Don McLean quote goes.

In the wake of American Pie, Don suddenly became a major concert attraction. His concerts consisted mainly of material from the American Pie and Tapestry albums. Additionally Don knew a tremendous number of old concert hall numbers, aswell as the complete catalogues of singers such as Buddy Holly, and another McLean influence, Frank Sinatra. (By the mid-1980s Don was able to call upon a 3000-song repertoire from memory.) The years of playing small-time gigs in New York’s coffee houses (Don had become the resident singer at Cafe Lena in New York in 1964) immediately paid off with well-paced performances. Extensive concert footage, together with video footage played to McLean songs formed the awarding winning 1972 film Till Tomorrow produced by Bob Elfstrom. Perhaps this film has been overlooked as the source of the first ‘pop video’.

Very soon the record-buying public was looking at McLean’s first album again. Tapestry finally charted in the USA o­n 12 February 1972 reaching #111 and the top-15 in the United Kingdom, where Don was to become more popular than in his homeland. The second single from the American Pie album, Vincent, charted o­n 18 March 1972 going o­n to reach #12 in the USA, #1 in the UK. Worldwide, Vincent, proved to be an even bigger hit than American Pie. Don has since said that if he’d been allowed to release more singles from that album, they would all have been hits. Indeed the American Pie album is quintessential Don McLean and remains a massive selling CD in 1996. The songs Empty Chairs and Till Tomorrow must be two of the most beautiful love songs ever written whilst Crossroads must be the most depressing! At the time the song Everyone Loves Me Baby was considered a particular highlight – some commentators even ranking it higher than Vincent! The album also contains the all-time favourite Winterwood aswell as The Grave and Sister Fatima all of which feature o­n Don’s UK Best Of compilation album which hit the charts in 1991. The now legendary version of Babylon (arranged with Lee Hayes) completed the ‘Pie album. American Pie album remained at #1 in the UK for 7 weeks in 1972, and in the UK charts for 53 consecutive weeks. American Pie was the biggest selling single of 1972 and was to hit the UK top-10 19 years later in the Autumn of 1991.

The events of 1971/72 also had their downside. Don was the victim of various hate campaigns; naked women were planted in his hotel bathroom (doesn’t sound too bad Don?!), reporters searched his rubbish (trash), others worked to create a bad-press for Don wherever possible. Eventually the FBI were called in. Perhaps the inevitable strain of these events resulted in Don seeking a lower profile with a series of low-key concerts with the mandolinist, Frank Wakefield, which gave rise to the 1973 album, Playin Favourites. Before that Don’s third album, simply entitled Don McLean, provided a more immediate reaction to his instant superstardom. The lyrics to the single, Dreidel (released o­n 27 November 1972), tell their own story:

My world is a
constant confusion
My mind is prepared to attack
My past, a persuasive illusion
I’m watchin’ the future it’s black

What do you know? You know just what you perceive
What can you show? Nothing of what you believe
And as you grow, each thread of life that you leave
Will spin around your deeds and dictate your needs
As you sell your soul and you sow your seeds
And you wound yourself and your loved o­ne bleeds
And your habits grow, and your conscience feeds
On all that you thought you should be
I never thought this could happend to Me

 

Within a month the single had charted in the US, going o­n to reach #21. In the UK Dreidel was played o­n radio almost as regularly as the still dominant American Pie and Vincent, but mysteriously was never released as a single. At least it was considered a major turntable hit and remains instantly recognisable to concert audiences today. Equally surprising was the reluctance of Don’s record company to release Bronco Bill’s Lament (B-side to Dreidel in the USA) from the Don McLean album which can also be considered a radio and TV hit in the UK. Not surprisingly the Don McLean album was unable to match the sales of American Pie but still reached #23 in the USA. The album’s second single, If We Try, reached #58 in the USA and was re-recorded in 1978 and released as the B-side to It Doesn’t Matter Anymore. If We Try was a major top-20 single in Australia and elsewhere in ’72 and in the 1990s has finally been recognised as o­ne of Don’s very best recordings. The Don McLean album also contains the superb The Birthday Song, Oh My What a Shame and the McLean concert favourite: o­n the Amazon.

Don McLean had rapidly become a major superstar in the UK. Don was a regular o­n prime-time TV and radio chat shows and his appearance o­n ‘Sounds for Saturday’ in 1972 drew a record audience. An appearance o­n radio 1 in April 1973 gave rise Don’s third hit single: Everyday. Recorded by the BBC, with Don singing with just his guitar and his road-manager adding thigh slaps, the single quickly hit the UK charts, reaching #38 (top-10 o­n some charts). The studio version had been recorded for the Playin Favourites album, to some extent overlooked in the USA, but a major top-40 album in the UK for Don. From that album, Fool’s Paradise reached #107 in the USA in March 1973 whilst its second US single (Sittin’ o­n Top of the World) failed to chart in 1974. Perhaps the best known song from the album is Mountains of Mourne – now considered the classic recording of the old Irish ballad and a #1 for Don in Ireland in 1973. 1973 also saw a major UK concert tour for Don with a critically acclaimed performance at the Royal Albert Hall being broadcast by the BBC. That concert was to contain the appearance of new material destined for release o­n the 1974 Homeless Brother album.

Before that Don was to return to the headlines all be it due to the efforts of two other notable singers. Perry Como recorded And I Love You So from the Tapestry album and took it all the way to the UK top-5. (Surprisingly And I Love You So has never been a hit single for Don.) Como’s version was nominated for a Grammy but was beaten by a song about Don, Killing Me Softly With His Song, sung by Roberta Flack and written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox after Lori Leiberman had attended a McLean concert in LA. Lori’s version, by the way, is by far the best recording of Killing Me Softly. Como’s Grammy award failure was, perhaps, unsurprising given Don’s outrageous failure at the previous year’s awards when he was nominated for four and got none! Shortly afterwards, Roy Orbison consoled Don by telling him he “woz robbed”! And I Love You So was to go o­n to be recorded by many other artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Mathis, and Shirley Bassey! Elvis was a fan of Don’s and would often talk about him o­n stage, something that Don is particularly proud of.

The 1974 album, Homeless Brother, came at a time of an apparent lull in Don’s career. Some music critics had been disappointed that Don hadn’t capitalised further o­n the ‘American Pie’ sound; indeed Don’s record companies are said to have been constantly frustrated by his refusal to write identical sounding songs to ‘Pie and Vincent. Don had preferred to stick with his own true musical instincts; at the end of his first songbook in 1972 he wrote, “I’ll let the music take me where it wants to go, it’s never let me down”. It certainly didn’t with the excellent Homeless Brother album. The title song, featuring Pete Seeger o­n backing vocals, is o­ne of Don’s best folk-based songs but surprisingly has never featured o­n a Best Of compilation unlike La La Love You (chart single) and Wonderful Baby. Wonderful Baby, written by Don in the feel of the 1930s, made it into the US top-100 pop chart and became a number 1 o­n the AOR chart. Again the single was not released in the UK despite extensive airplay o­n radio and TV. Two years later the song received even more attention when Fred Astaire came out of retirement to record it himself. Don became friends with Fred and jokes that when they met at Claridges in London, Fred promised not to mention American Pie if Don didn’t mention Ginger!

Back in 1974, the Homeless Brother album perhaps received most attention for the song, The Legend of Andrew McCrew. Don had written it after reading a newspaper article about a dead black hobo who had toured America as a circus attraction in the early part of the century. The song attracted such attention that it was seen to that the hobo was given a proper burial. Famously the third verse of the song is inscribed o­n the grave’s tombstone. Other highlights from the Homeless Brother album include Winter Has Me In Its Grip (used for too long by American weathercasters as background music), Crying in the Chapel (recorded with the Persuasions) which Don considers the ‘first true pop song’ and Sail Away Raymond, written by George Harrison. A less well-known song from the album worthy of mention is the excellent Did You Know. The Homeless Brother album is o­ne of the major highlights of Don’s 27 year recording career.

Homeless Brother was Don’s last studio album for three years. His final UA album, Solo, was released in 1976. Solo is a double-live album recorded during 1975 in Bristol, Oxford and Manchester, England as part of a concert tour which would include an audience of 85000 at Don’s London Hyde Park concert. Yet some commentators attribute the album’s lack of chart success as a sign of Don’s unfashionability! The Hyde Park event (featured o­n the inside cover of the 1983 Dominion album) attracted the second highest concert attendance (after The Rolling Stones) seen in the UK whilst being simultaneously broadcast across the nation’s independent radio station network. The Solo album is a fitting tribute to that famous ’75 tour and a fine retrospective of Don’s first five years of records and major concert appearances. The highlight is perhaps the 7-minute long sing-a-long version of Babylon although all of Don’s hits are featured.

The UA albums are what Don unsurprisingly now refers to as ‘The Treasury’. They were amongst the most familiar records of their day and now, in the 1990s, they are available again across the globe in CD format with each selling tens of thousands of copies every year.

Copyright 1996, Dr. Alan Howard