Any performer fortunate enough to be involved in a true phenomenon had better be prepared to deal with it, one way or another, for the rest of his or her life. Don McLean (born. Oct. 2, 1945, New Rochelle, New York) must thank his lucky stars that his phenomenon, 1971's massive hit single "American Pie," came late enough in his career as a singer-songwriter to be dealt with for what it was--an extramusical, sociological event--rather than the albatross it might have become for any less experienced artist. Career surges come and career surges go, but McLean has never lost what it takes to win over any audience--regardless of its size or his fluctuating status as a record-seller.
A well-respected writer and player who'd given countless performances in folk clubs and coffeehouse for nearly a decade before "Pie," McLean had struck up an early friendship with many well-known folk figures, including Pete Seeger, who provided him significant extended exposure as part of the performing troupe on the fabled Clearwater sloop in 1969. McLean then signed with the small Mediarts label and recorded Tapestry, which went mostly unheard until its 1973 reissue by United Artists (who had purchased Mediarts two years earlier). The reason for its re-release? Inevitably, "American Pie."
Released in late 1971, McLean's allegorical story of rock 'n' roll has been analyzed to near death--though McLean himself has consistently (and wisely) refused to be drawn into protracted explanation regarding its meaning. Its extended stay at the top of the charts--it was No. 1 for four weeks, while the American Pie album held the top slot for seven in 1972--might've guaranteed a raft of imitations, perhaps by a dazzled McLean himself, but it was not to be. His next single, the lovely "Vincent" (a tribute to artist Vincent Van Gogh), was a moving, intimate track that sounded nothing like "American Pie" but hit the top 20 regardless. A huge international hit, the song in some ways shaped McLean's future--and later musical approach--much more so than did "Pie."
By 1973, McLean was gaining fame via truly unique sources: Perry Como had recorded his Tapestry track "And I Love You So" and scored a top 30 hit with it; and Roberta Flack's smash No. 1 hit "Killing Me Softly With His Song," it became known, was directly inspired by a live McLean performance. Following the relative success of "Dreidel," a single pulled from American Pie's follow-up Don McLean, the singer spent the remainder of the '70s hitless. While his international fame grew, particularly as a concert attraction in the U.K., McLean, partially stymied by a perceived need to follow-up "American Pie," at one point refused to play the track in concert--though he later relented.
One early indication that McLean knew there was more to his life than one extraordinary hit single was his rootsy Playin' Favorites album of 1973, which featured the singer's versions of cs by Buddy Holly, Dale Evans' "Happy Trails," and other more traditional folkie fare. In fact, when McLean's star surged once more in the early '80s, it was again with cover versions--of Roy Orbison's "Crying," which hit the top 5, followed by the Skyliners' "Since I Don't Have You," which peaked at No. 23. He followed both up with a top 40 remake of Tapestry's "Castles In The Air."
For The Memories, two separate volumes of standards McLean issued during the late '80s, were charming recordings that might suggest to some that McLean's own creative well was tapped out. Yet in 1991, the singer produced a respectable collection of originals called Headroom that easily measured up to past work. There might not have been a new "American Pie" in there, true--but Don McLean, from every indication, doesn't plan to stop killing them softly anytime soon.