Donald McLean was born in 1945 in New Rochelle, New York. 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 78rpm records. He took opera lessons as a child, paid for by his sister, and his first guitar was a Harmony F Hole with a sunburst finish. 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. To build up his muscles he swam and the exercises allowed him to sing long, continuous phrases. Frank Sinatra attributed the same ability to his early swimming. Don’s father died when he was 15 years old which had a profoundly affected upon him as did the premature deaths of his heroes Buddy Holly and John F. Kennedy. Don wanted to be a professional folk musician and singer and by 16 years he begun to perform and make business contacts. He contacted Erik Darling (The Weavers) and they became friends, later Darling helped Don by introducing him to Lisa Kindred who produced his first studio sessions. Despite being invited to join the Rooftop Singers, Don declined preferring to remain a solo artist. He went to Villanova University but dropped out after four months, there he made a lasting friendship with fellow freshman, Jim Croce. Don worked for Harold Leventhal (Judy Collins’s manager) and for the next six years performed at venues across the US appearing with many artists including Herbie Mann, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry, Melanie, Steppenwolf, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Janis Ian, Josh White, Ten Wheel Drive and others. Despite his erratic work schedule Don received a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Iona College after attending night school. Although he won a scholarship to Columbia University Graduate School to further his academic studies Don became the resident singer at Café Lena in Saratoga Springs. He was given a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts and performed in towns up and down the Hudson Valley. Don gave talks about the environment and sang songs as part of the promotion. Don became a member of the Sloop Clearwater crew and travelled the Atlantic seaboard with Pete Seegar playing concerts at each port. The Hudson River Project was very successful and it attracted a wider attention to Don Mclean’s work. The two performers became very friendly and Don was encouraged to write a portfolio of songs. In 1969, Don also recorded his first album, “Tapestry” which attracted good reviews and achieved modest commercial success.
The singer had such confidence as a young performer he held out for the lucrative publishing rights to his own songs, the management of Meriarts agreed. The success of Tapestry enabled him to sign to United Artists and record a second album. Don McLean and Ed Freeman (producer) worked closely on the follow up album American Pie. Despite the excellence of the finished product the two were seldom in agreement with Don preferring the less well produced and more authentic sound. American Pie, was an eight minute track divided into two parts and released in 1971. It catapulted the number one position in the US.
The lyrics have always fascinated many with people interpreting them as a lament to the passing of the American Dream typified by the untimely demise of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. The singer songwriter has always avoided endorsing too much public analysis indicating the song was more autobiographical. Despite its meteoric success internationally it handicapped Don McLean’s career overshadowing his subsequent recordings as well as disrupting his personal life with the intrusion of publicity. In 1972 he released the follow up, "Vincent”, which also charted around the world.
His third album Don McLean (1972) downplayed the commercial qualities and subsequently sold less well.
Despite this he became a major concert attraction throughout the 70s and appeared all over the world. Privately he shunned the limelight and returned to playing a series of low key gigs. His fourth album was Playing Favourites (1973) saw Don back playing folk, country and bluegrass with good humour.
In 1978 he went to Nashville and worked with Elvis Presley's backing singers, "The Jordanaires” as well as many of Presley’s old musicians. The result was a chart topping version of Roy Orbison’s "Crying”.
More chart successes followed 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 Train” (US) and "Eventually”.
In 1994, Don appeared at the Buddy Holly tributes in the USA and London. Many of Don’s compositions have been covered by a wide array of artists from Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Madonna, George Michael to Guns and Roses and Just Luis. Most of which have charted. Roy Orbison described him as "the voice of the century" and Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly with His Song" was written about Don McLean.
Lori Lieberman had seen him in concert singing "Empty Chairs" and was moved to write the poem "Killing me softly with his blue". Later songwriters Norman Gimbel/Charles Fox took the poem and composed the song. Don continues to tour..
Worth a listen:
And I Love You So (1970)
Castles in the Air (1970)
American Pie (1971)
Empty Chairs (1971)
Wonderful Baby (1971)
Babylon (Adapt. from Psalm 137) (1971)
Fools Paradise (1973)
Wonderful Baby (1974)
It doesn’t matter any more (1978)
Love hurts (1981)