The Don McLean Story: 1970-1976
Don McLean, aged 23, recorded his first album Tapestry in June 1969. Famously the album was rejected by over thirty labels before finally being released by Mediarts in April 1970. At first the album, produced by Jerry Corbitt of The Youngbloods, received little publicity and failed to make a commercial impact. In 1971, Mediarts was taken over by United Artists who then reissued the album and the single, Castles in the Air (which Mediarts had issued first in April 1970). Castles' had been remixed for the United Artists album and the original, Mediarts version, is now available for the first time on CD on the EMI Legendary Artists' series: Don McLean: Favorites and Rarities released in 1992. Liner notes for the new UA album were provided by the 'Dean' of folk music Pete Seeger. He said "Don is just...A normal talented, unpretentious, nervous, relaxed musician trying to use his songs to help people survive in these perilous times". Don had toured with Seeger aboard the Sloop Clearwater in 1969 helping to raise environmental awareness - the title song to this album, Tapestry, is perhaps one of the most perceptive environmental songs ever written. The only regret is that it is one song Don hoped he would not have to be still singing in the 1990s. Arising from the Clearwater voyage was a song book full of pictures and sketches compiled by Don himself.
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
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