“I’m not folk, and I’m not rock, and I’m not country – I’m just me,” Don McLean said during his Musicians Hall of Fame induction speech in November. “I’m kind of a guy who invents songs.”
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And invent songs he does. McLean is the sole author behind the famed “American Pie,” which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021, and the popular ballad “And I Love You So,” which has been recorded by Elvis Presley, Glen Campbell, Rick Astley, and Perry Como. The Songwriters Hall of Famer began writing songs as a teenager and hasn’t stopped since.
The 77-year-old was drawn to music from a young age. As an infant, McLean tried to sing along with his mother to Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer.” When he was older, he’d sit with his grandmother as she played piano. His father’s mother, who stayed with the family for four months each year, taught him piano and how to harmonize.
[RELATED: Behind The Song: Don McLean, “American Pie”]
“Singing was really the thing I could do that would seem to get me paid attention to in a good way,” McLean tells American Songwriter while seated inside the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville hours before his induction. “My life has been a journey of finding myself and finding things that I could do that I didn’t believe I was capable of.”
McLean grew up in the predominantly white, middle-class suburb of New Rochelle, New York, in the late 1950s. At the time, the idea of being a musician was “the lowest thing you could ever do.” He says there was a prejudice against pursuing music as a profession, and his father would have strongly disapproved of his career path. That didn’t stop a young McLean from filling his house with music, though. He’d often bring home records by Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley, and played each record repeatedly: “The worst things my father could ever imagine,” he says with a laugh.
He vividly recalls listening to Presley’s records with his grandmother. She especially loved hearing The Jordanaires, who provided background vocals for The King and many other acts.
“I played Elvis records and she’d say, ‘Boy, I like this. I like that group behind him. Boy, they can harmonize,’” McLean recalls. “And I’d say, ‘How do they do that?’ And she would say, ‘Well, I’ll tell you how they do it. You sing a little and I’ll harmonize with you.’ So, I would sing a little song and she would harmonize. And then [she’d say], ‘You try it.’ So, that’s how I learned harmony.”
McLean was 15 when his father died, and it was around this time that he “began to realize that I was really all alone in the world.” So, he decided to focus on what he loved: performing, playing guitar, and writing songs.
By 16, McLean booked his first gig with two friends at an Israeli coffee house in 1962. He got the performance bug and began renting stages at dance halls to perform. He’d put up fliers all over town and charge $5 per person. Some nights he made $500.
“All of a sudden, everything came my way,” he says. “There were little coffee houses that would open up and you could sing there. If you had five or six songs, and you could play pretty well, they’d let you go on stage. And before you know it, I have a little agent, and I’m getting some jobs and making money. I’m giving lessons and I’m making more money than all my friends are and I’m doing what I love.”
McLean graduated from Iona College with degrees in economics, finance, and philosophy. Shortly after, he toured with Pete Seeger and performed along the Hudson River. McLean began writing letters to his mentor around age 14, and throughout the years Seeger provided wisdom and opportunity to the budding musician.
“Those were the best days of my life,” McLean says. “He gave me some good advice in some of these little letters that he wrote me. He said, ‘Don’t try to learn too much. Do a few things very, very well. Don’t try to learn a lot of things.’ And that’s very good advice.”
McLean observed Seeger onstage and took in even more lessons firsthand. He learned what worked and didn’t work in a stage show, and how Seeger programmed songs with different tempos and keys to cause dramatic effect.
“I was a ramblin’ boy and remained that way forever,” McLean admits. “It was always an adventure. One thing led to another; I was always excited. I’m still doing that.”
The New York native worked with Seeger from the late ’60s through the mid-’70s. During this time, he also was writing songs, many of which are included on his debut album, Tapestry. The album was first released in 1969 via Mediarts Records and then relaunched in 1971 by United Artists. While McLean cites Tapestryas the best album he’s ever made, it was a tumultuous time as he was turned down by numerous record labels.
McLean wrote most of the songs for Tapestry while living in a little gatehouse in a place called Cold Spring on the Hudson River. He describes Cold Spring as “a working man’s town,” and says the area had a big Italian and conservative population at the time. He recalls some conflicts around that time, including the people of Cold Spring being combative with Seeger’s political beliefs. Despite all this, it remained a fruitful and creative time for McLean.
“I wrote some great songs there,” he says. “Some of the best songs I ever wrote were written in that little house. I went to LA for the first time when they were having the auction of MGM. I went to the auction. I saw Dorothy’s slippers and I wrote the song ‘Magdalene Lane’ about Los Angeles.
“I was involved with Seeger and the Hudson River Sloop, which was an environmental cause trying to use the boat to clean up the Hudson River to draw attention to the river and the things that were being done to destroy it. [The Hudson River] was being used as a sewer. … So, I wrote the song ‘Tapestry.’ It all came to me one day.”
Every fish that swims silent, every bird that flies freely, every doe that steps softly / Every crisp leaf that falls, all the flowers that grow on this colorful tapestry, somehow, they know / That if man is allowed to destroy all we need / He will soon have to pay with his life, for his greed, McLean sings on “Tapestry.”
The album also includes “Orphans of Wealth,” a song about poverty in America, and “Castles in the Air,” a track McLean wrote when he left home. “I knew I crossed that Rubicon, and I wasn’t coming back,” he says of the latter.
Tapestry also features the beloved “And I Love You So,” a song McLean wrote to channel the pop songs he heard on the radio while growing up in the 1950s. While Como saw success with his cover, which peaked at No. 29 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 1973, it was Presley’s version that became a full-circle moment for McLean.
“Elvis tried to get me to give him the publishing,” McLean recalls. “Dolly Parton mentioned that she didn’t get a recording of her song, ‘I Will Always Love You,’ because he wanted the publishing on it. I said, ‘No, I’m not giving you the publishing,’ and he did the song anyway. He really loved the song. He sang it every night in the last two years of his life.
“Those last two shows for that CBS special … he does some beautiful singing on that. He sang ‘And I Love You So’ in both of those shows, and tears come to my eyes because I would sit with my grandmother—she was the only musical one [in my family]—we’d sit on the stairs, and I played Elvis records.”
While Tapestry has survived the test of time, McLean admits it was the hardest album to put out. He was turned down by many people and was $20,000 in debt. When Tapestry finally came out, it was well received by radio.
“Every FM station started playing the Tapestry album,” McLean says. “There was a guy in New York and his name was Pete Fornatale, and he played that album like it was the best thing that ever happened. It was pure FM radio and [had] these different songs that I had written that were all different forms, and that’s what I do.”
McLean says he doesn’t have a style when it comes to songwriting. Therefore, it’s hard for others to wrap their head around what he does. “Vincent” isn’t like “Wonderful Baby” and “Wonderful Baby” isn’t like “American Pie,” he notes.
“I started out writing simple things, little things,” he says, “and I started out challenging myself with chord progressions and trying something new.”
The songwriter estimates he’s penned 200 songs in his lifetime. He admits that sometimes he hates songwriting, but in those moments, he simply gets back into it and writes some more. While he looks to The Beatles and Bob Dylan for inspiration, McLean’s muse can come from anywhere. His 1972 hit “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” was written in tribute to the late painter Vincent van Gogh. The song reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart and No. 12 on the Hot 100 chart.
“A song like ‘Vincent,’ that’s not a song that anybody would write,” he says. “It’s a weird song; a man singing to another man about his sensitivity and with a mental health aspect in it. Nobody writes stuff like that. I was aware of what everybody else was doing … I did not want to be another Bob Dylan. I mean, there were so many of them out there and we really had one who was very good at being Bob Dylan. We didn’t need those other guys. Certainly, didn’t need me.
“So, I tried to create a whole new singing style which was pop singing, but it was rock ‘n’ roll, and it had tone and vibrato. I wanted to sing melodies. ‘American Pie,’ you see, there are several parts to it, but it’s also fairly melodic.”
“American Pie” has several melodies, and McLean says the song just came out that way. He doesn’t know how he wrote the song; he simply was sitting by his tape recorder and sang it word for word. The lyrics came out as a stream of consciousness, which is how McLean writes all his songs. “American Pie” took McLean 10 years to write, and the song’s lyrics have been greatly debated in the years that followed.
“There’s a circularity to the song because I’m dealing with the music in the beginning and then all this stuff has happened,” he says. “I’m going back to the sacred steward to find the music and the music wouldn’t play. So, it’s a circle.”
McLean’s seminal album, American Pie, was released in 1971 and forever changed the course of his career. The 8-minute and 42-second title track reigned for four weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and held the record for nearly 50 years for being the longest song to reach No. 1. Taylor Swift eventually broke that record in 2021 with “All Too Well (10-Minute Version).”
[RELATED: 50 Years After Hitting No. 1, The Meaning of “American Pie” Then and Now]
Thirty years after its release, “American Pie” was voted the No. 5 Song of the Century in a poll compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Library of Congress also added the song to the National Recording Registry of 2016.
Now more than 50 years since its release, “American Pie” holds a different meaning to McLean. The songwriter views the lyrics, there we were all in one place / A generation lost in space / With no time left to start again, from a new perspective.
“I love the line and again, I don’t know how I did this,” he says. “People, when you’re young, they say time flies. But when you’re my age and the time has flown, you realize how fast it flies. You cannot realize it unless you’re on that side of things. When you’re young, you don’t think time flies. But when you’re older—you’re old like I am—the time has flown. It’s all in your perspective.”
Age is just a number for McLean, who continues to write songs, record music, release children’s books, and tour the globe. He’s readying an album titled American Boys, expected later this year. His 2023 tour kicks off in April in Australia and runs through May in New Zealand. McLean has plans to extend the trek into Germany and the U.S. He also is active with The Don McLean Foundation, which sends students, who cannot otherwise afford it, to college and contributes to homeless shelters and food banks in Maine.
While he cites London’s Royal Albert Hall, New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, and performing with Garth Brooks in Central Park as career highlights, McLean’s influence transcends locale and genre. His songs have been recorded by Brooks, Madonna, Josh Groban, Drake, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and countless others. Career accolades aside, McLean simply sees himself as an inventor.
“That’s what I am: I’m an inventor,” he says. “A songwriter, I invent. I wrote a song on an album called Botanical Gardens called ‘Ain’t She a Honey.’ It’s the coolest little song. [Sings the song’s melody.] Where it came from, I don’t know. How I wrote the lyrics, I don’t know. But I create a whole new style of lyric writing every time I do a song. I don’t repeat it. That’s what Pete Seeger said to me. One night he said, ‘You know Don, you’re a genius. You’re like a chef that only serves up a meal once.’
“Every time you hear one of my songs, I want it to be new and different.”