By William McCray Sutherlin
You probably know Don McLean from his 1971 colossal hit, “American Pie.” The powerful impressionistic tale has survived through the decades, and was inspired by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper) in a plane crash on February 3, 1959. More than 30 years later, we still remember it as “The Day the Music Died.”
McLean became fascinated with folk music as a teenager, especially with the Weavers’ 1955 recording, At Carnegie Hall. Because of childhood asthma, he had to miss long periods of school. This of course disrupted his studies, however it allowed his love for music to blossom.
After graduating from Iona Prep in 1963, McLean attended Villanova University and dropped out after four months. During this time, he became friends with another powerhouse singer-songwriter, Jim Croce. While performing festivals and concerts, he obtained his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Iona College. Later on, he turned down a scholarship to Columbia University Graduate School in order to continue pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter
Before releasing American Pie and being launched into international stardom, McLean had trouble releasing his first album Tapestry, which was recorded in Berkeley, CA during the student riots and turned down by 72 record labels. This debut album received good reviews, but not much recognition outside of the folk community.
In 1971, “American Pie” topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts for nearly an entire month, making it McLean’s most successful single release.
Many interpretations of the song came out after its release; however McLean denied to say anything definitive about the lyrics until 1978. At this time, he stated that the lyrics are also somewhat autobiographical and present an abstract story of his life from the mid-1950’s until the time he penned the song in the late 1960’s.
Garnering immense success as a single as well as an album, American Pie was voted No. 5 of the 365 Songs of the Century, a list that was compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Having an illustrious and enduring career as a recording artist as well as a songwriter, McLean has worked with and inspired contemporary artists such as Madonna, Tupac Shakur, Drake, and many more.
In 2004, McLean was inaugurated into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Country music superstar and well-respected songwriter Garth Brooks presented the award and stated, “Don McLean: his work, like the man himself, is very deep and very compassionate. His pop anthem ‘American Pie’ is a cultural phenomenon.”
McLean’s success could be talked about for hours on end. Overall, he has garnered over 40 gold and platinum records worldwide, making him an American icon.
Be sure to catch a taste of history this Friday, August 22, as legendary Don McLean visits the River Center.