The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll
By Gary Theroux
According to his parents, Don McLean knew more than 100 songs by the time he was two. Born and raised in New Rochelle, N.Y. (the fictional home of Rob and Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”), Don suffered from childhood asthma, which limited his sports play. Instead, he turned to music and became an avid fan of both folk music and Buddy Holly.
“Buddy was the person who made me learn the guitar,” recalled Don. “To me, he had a certain energy and I loved the way he played. I knew I was going to make a living at music for the simple reason that I don’t want to wear a suit or take a day job.”
For a brief time, though, Don did hold down daytime employment — as a 12-year-old paper boy. Later on he would mention that fact in the opening lyrics of “American Pie.”
While in high school, Don developed an interest in instrumentals that he could dazzle folks with on guitar or banjo. He performed at parties, and after graduation started to work the folk club circuit. He was quickly accepted by such veterans as Josh White, Fred Hellerman and Pete Seeger. By 1963, Don was a college student, hanging out at Villanova University with a like-minded friend, Jim Croce. Four years later, McLean began writing his own material.
Don put a few songs on tape in 1969 and began shopping for a label deal. Thirty-seven companies turned him down before Mediarts Records gave him the break he needed. They released the LP “Tapestry” and a single from it, “Castles In The Air.” Both, though, flopped and the label soon folded. Mediarts’ masters, however, were bought up by United Artists, who added Don to the UA roster. Shortly thereafter, McLean started work on a rousing encore for his live show — the epic ballad that would make him an international sensation.
“That song didn’t just happen,” said Don. “It grew out of my experiences. ‘American Pie’ was part of my process of self-awakening; a mystical trip into my past.”
McLean explained how he came to be known as “The Voice of Suburbia.” “I try to write music that represents me — where I came from and who I am. I sang about my experiences growing up white and middle class in New Rochelle.”
Don called his song “a complicated parable,” open to different interpretations. “People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity. Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. My lyrics had to do with the state of society at that time.”
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, McLean was deeply concerned over what he termed “the death of America” — the loss of so many things he had believed in while growing up. “In that sense, ‘America Pie’ was a very despairing song. In another, though, it was very hopeful. Pete Seeger told me he saw it as a song in which people were saying something. They’d been fooled, they’d been hurt and it wasn’t gonna happen again. That’s a good way to look at it, a hopeful way.”
Released in November 1971, “American Pie” moved up the charts faster than any other United Artists record ever. It reached No. 1 in January 1972 and remained on the hit parade for nearly four months. It sold more than three million copies as a single, five million as an album. You had to buy the LP to hear the complete song without any breaks, as at 8:36 the track was far too long to fit on one side of a 45 RPM single. The 45 buyers got Part 1 on one side, Part 2 on the other.
Don’s next release was a two-sided hit: “Vincent” backed by “Castles in the Air” (the same version that has flopped before on Mediarts). December 1972 brought a fourth hit, “Dreidel.” That same year, singer Lori Lieberman was so captivated by Don’s live appearance in L.A.’s Troubadour Club that she told two songwriting friends how Don had “killed her” with his performance. So inspired, Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox wrote a tune based on Lori’s passionate reaction. Robert Flack recorded it and in 1973 “Killing Me Softly with His Song” won two Grammies as Record and Song of the Year. Ironically, that last win knocked out of contention Perry Como’s rendition of “And I Love You So,” a McLean composition from his first album on Mediarts.
Don’s own final Top 40 hits came in 1981, when he revived Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” The Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You” and a new version of “Castles in the Air.”
“American Pie” went on to survive being reworked by Weird Al Yankovic into his 1999 “Star Wars”-themed parody “The Saga Begins” and a 2000 hit remake by Madonna. As for McLean, he was thrilled to become a 2004 inductee into The Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Gary Theroux researched, wrote, programmed and co-produced the legendary 52-hour Billboard award-winning radio rockumentary “The History of Rock ‘n Roll.” Today, over rewoundradio.com and supernovaradio.co, he hosts it’s 2½ minute feature version, which won the 2014 New York Festivals International Programming Award as “the world’s best online radio series.” © 2015 Pop Record Research.